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A Cure for Wellness online movie review - The Existential Dread of Gore Verbinski
One cannot deny the ingenuity of director Gore Verbinski. At his best, he artfully weaves stories through a centrifuge of age-old storytelling techniques, and sumptuous world-building.
Sometimes it feels as if Verbinski creates his worlds without even trying; the filigree and lore of Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-Present) and Rango (2011) exists almost as a state of fact. They exist because, of course they do. Would you want it any other way? A Cure for Wellness takes that same instinct and eye for detail to the stratosphere, providing an opulent and unique playground for all the film's ghouls to play in. The alpine roads leading up to the Swiss sanatorium where we lay our scene, hug the mountains like laces of a tightly fit dress. The naturalism of the verdant bluffs compare starkly to the shimmering glass buildings where our hero Lockhart (DeHaan) has found his professional niche. "Her eyes are closed because she's dreaming," a character says about a ballerina figurine. At the film's height, it certainly feels like we're dreaming.
Then we wake up. For me, it was around the time Lockhart takes a trip down the mountain to make a phone call and drink a beer. Up until that time, the plot - a young executive sent to retrieve a company's CEO from a health and wellness retreat, smacked of Dracula (1931) in the best of ways. Once we snap out of Lockhart's head-space however (roughly halfway through the film), all the meticulous setups, all the dreamy mis en scene and all the under the skin horror slips out like water out of an amniotic sac.
It's a shame too. The sanatorium, the ambulant patients, the creepy staff all hint to an unspoken horror. The kind that doesn't just go "Boo!" in the night but impacts you with clinched anxiety that can hardly be quelled. "No one ever leaves...why would they want to?" says Hannah (Goth) the only patient, other than Lockhart under the age of forty. She utters her words with the breathy tone of a ghastly harbinger of doom. It's a common trope but because Mia Goth sells it so well, we want to believe there is unimaginable horror lurking just underneath the surface.
Yet while Verbinski has all the visual instincts of a world-class auteur, his taste in stories are surprisingly literal. Visual exploration and motifs concerning existential dread and mortality are confounded by pulpy plot reveals. Real and perceived threats are overwhelmed by last act explanations. Slow-burning scares are drowned out by loud showstopping scenes that don't so much frighten as they do shock. And the CGI, good gravy, that CGI.
What it all amounts to is clichés that are just that, clichés. They don't explore the dark recesses of the human mind or find unique ways to scare up some audience goodwill. They don't go outside the box nor do they give us anything substantive outside the baroque horror echo chamber that hasn't been relevant since "The Fall of the House of Usher". The clichés, the characters and the sets are simply there to push a plot that feels like they were checking off squares on a horror trope bingo card.
Of course if one were to severely penalize every horror film that sprinkled clichés into its soup, we'd never get a horror film worth the admission price. If you exhumed and analyzed every bad thing about A Cure for Wellness, you'd still be left with a fairly good mystery. Not to mention an abundance of scares that are still accomplished the hard way. It's also a handsome film. A fact that shouldn't account for much but does account for something.