A sick film for sick people, Gore Verbinski’s “A Cure for Wellness” is the strangest movie that a major studio has released since 2014’s “Inherent Vice” (a Thomas Pynchon adaptation that only got the green light because everybody wants to be in the Paul Thomas Anderson business, even though that business hasn’t been profitable in a very long time). A thick, festering chunk of psychological horror that feels like a full-bodied Guillermo del Toro remake of “Shutter Island,” this woozy 146-minute nightmare does for workaholics what Val Lewton did for cat people, and it does so in ridiculous style. It isn’t particularly smart, but a Hollywood product this screwy doesn’t really have to be — even at its most half-baked, “A Cure for Wellness” is still a thrilling reminder of what can happen in the increasingly rare instance when a visionary filmmaker is given serious cash without constraints (hat tip to the German Federal Film Fund, who chipped in almost 10 million Euros).
Lacing an intractably modern problem through an age-old genre funhouse, the story begins high above the streets of Manhattan, where a financial executive — working alone in the office long after the markets have closed — drops dead of a heart attack, surrounded by an empty sea of unsleeping computer screens. That leaves an opening in the company hierarchy, an opening that a young vulture named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is eager to fill. The test provided for him is simple enough: Fly to Switzerland, retrieve the firm’s CEO from the mountain resort to which he’s absconded, and escort him back to New York City in time for an impending merger. So off he goes, traveling to a remote pocket of the Swiss Alps with duffel bags beneath his eyes but no luggage with which to fill them.
It’s supposed to be a short trip, a smash-and-grab job of herding his bosses’ boss into a limo and hauling him home, but what Lockhart doesn’t know is that nobody ever leaves the Volmer Institute. When the upstart stockbroker tries to retreat down the mountain, a car accident finds him becoming the alpine fortress’ newest patient; incest, hardcore gaslighting, pornographically opulent set design, enough creepy nurses to make Lucile Hadzihalilovic blush, and the most agonizing display of dentistry since “Marathon Man” ensue. And eels. So many eels.
At first, Justin Haythe’s screenplay feigns an interest in the idea that Americans are literally working themselves to death and willing to pervert reality in order to avoid confronting that truth. We know we’re sick, the film seems to argue, but we’re in denial of the diagnosis. As Lockhart begins to explore his new environs — gawping at the institute’s glassy-eyed guests (zombified titans of industry), receiving plenty of personal attention from Dr. Volmer himself (Jason Isaacs, slippery as ever), and flirting with Hannah (“Nymphomaniac” standout Mia Goth), the pale young woman who’s spent her entire life at the spa resort — every scrap of stylish portent helps feed the queasy feeling that people would rather invent an illness for themselves than find a cure for the deepest parts of their condition.
But somewhere along the way — somewhere between the maggot water and the whispers about a creepy baron who built the institute 200 years ago — the film gleefully abandons its focus. That’s when things get really fun, as the lack of thematic heft is compensated for and then some by one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic stylists. Spending his remaining Hollywood capital like it’s about to be replaced by a new form of currency, Verbinski turns the film into a visceral and gruesome playground of the macabre, combining Tim Burton’s exaggeratedly dank aesthetic with young Tim Burton’s ability to cut a competent scene together. If the secrets lurking beneath the Volmer Institute are far too predictable, the sights you’ll see down there are still wickedly surprising.
Despite a smattering of effective jump scares, “A Cure for Wellness” relies far more on rich atmosphere than it does on cheap jolts. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who previously worked with Verbinski on “The Ring” and “The Lone Ranger,” shoots the spa with a saturated veneer of sterility that makes everything look enchanted and diseased at the same time, while production designer Eve Stewart takes the lessons she learned on “The King’s Speech” and fucks them way up, transforming German locations like Hohenzollern Castle and Berlin’s derelict Beelitz-Heilstätten military hospital into eerie places of infinite possibility, where each long corridor feeds into a scary room and even the smallest pool of water is a potential nesting place for — you guessed it — eels. The final scenes, during which the institute erupts into a carnivalesque bonfire of the insanities, achieve a rare gothic purity that allows the film’s internal logic to make its own kind of sense.
Verbinski packs so much stuff into his giddy Grand Guignol, and the more he crams in the better it works. It doesn’t even matter that the movie’s most compelling mystery is whether DeHaan looks more like Leonardo DiCaprio or Colin Hanks (resolved: it depends on the angle); when a haunted house is this large and lavishly furnished, it’s easy to lose yourself in a well-guided tour of terrors. So who’s sicker, the patients or the doctors? Lockhart may never know. And yet, in a roundabout way, “A Cure for Wellness” does end up accurately diagnosing what’s wrong with most big-budget horror movies: they’re too afraid of their own imaginations. Say what you will about Gore Verbinski, but that’s not a problem he’s ever had.
“A Cure for Wellness” opens in theaters on February 17.