With the ambitious A Cure for Wellness, the Mount Olympus of great horror movies receives a new masterwork from director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring), which is probably as hard a movie to make as can be. Key to this is a screenplay so complicated and integral it requires every aspect of production to elevate their game as just one false note resting in one frame has the potential to disprove the film’s internal logic. Sometimes we know what’s real, sometimes we know what’s fantasy, but most of the time it’s impossible to distinguish between the two.
The performances, camera, sets, editing, and special effects, under the direction of Verbinski, all contradict each other to distort scenes’ realistic implications. That makes the story’s mystery even harder to decipher for the protagonist and audience because logic and illogic blurred together. And it works! I believe this movie will grow in stature over the years and become recognized as a premiere achievement in filmmaking. It’s too daring not to.
A large corporation is on the verge of a major merger, but the deal requires the signature of its missing CEO, to seal the deal. Things get complicated when a strange letter from Pembroke, where he’s been hospitalized and seemingly demented from his sickness in the Swiss Alps. Desperate for his sign-off, the company recruits a younger eager executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) to travel to Europe and retrieve the missing CEO. Lockhart arrives at the hospital, which stands on the grounds of an old castle overlooking a poor village. The only sure thing is that Lockhart’s stay at the hospital is going to last longer that he had expected, much longer. But happens after…you’ll just have to see for yourself.
Lockhart was born and raised in the modern age of industry and technology, where professional failure and financial mediocrity are the world’s terrors; he’s placed in the middle of a European fairytale, where nightmares live in darkness filled with spirits and demons. Horror and terror remain in the metaphysical, something Lockhart cannot believe and is incapable of identifying. He fails to notice the red flags of the hospital, which is nestled in a scary old castle filled with creepy doctors and patients where nothing is normal. But his ambition shields him from considering the spooky and seemingly illogical nightmare that may lie in the hospital. So, when creepy things begin happening, his fear isn’t just genuinely frightful, but a revelation about his understanding of the world around him.
DeHaan sells this by giving one of the most original and difficult performances of recent years. His character is unsympathetic, yet the audience remains fixated on him as his eyes move about like a lizard. He’s key for the audience to unlocking the film’s mystery, so we appreciate his effort to investigate it, yet couldn’t care less if he comes out unscathed at the end. He’s the glue holding everything together. I know the awards season are a long way away, but I hoped he’s recognized.
The movie is strong tonally; this is a scary, scary world. Verbinski has visualized as terrifying a nightmare as one could ever dream. The compositions make each frame as creepy as the last as cinematographer Bojan Bazelli’s lighting, color schemes, and camerawork enhance each scene thematically. Plus, there are unforgettable set pieces ranking among the best of the horror genre. They invoke an unrelenting terror and always end sort of unresolved. It’s not like they end on a big shock scare. They just end on a down beat. Which is fine because they never relieve the audience of any sort of tension, which is bold move by Verbinski.
It feels strange watching the movie unfold. There’s a lot of moving pieces, making it easy to feel like the overall objective was muddled by the wide scope of Verbinski’s ambition. But even these pieces are deliberate devices he uses to throw curve-balls at the audience. Again, it’s not enough that we become lost among the plot’s craziness, but that our equilibrium is thrown off by the illogical nature of its many impenetrable scenes. “How can this happen?” But the movie is about acknowledging illogical fears that often defy rational explanation, a longform puzzle analyzing the logic of what makes one scared. Like the character Victoria’s puzzles, it only can be understood so much.
A Cure for Wellness is a wild movie and an amazing experience to see in a theater. Some may love it, others may hate it, but I don’t think anyone will fail to be engaged on some level by the experience. Here is an entirely new and completely unique horror epic that may never be understood completely; it leaves no easy answers. And yet here is a film that teaches so much about the art and craft of filmmaking itself, brimming with new ideas and surprises (which I wouldn’t dare spoil here). It’s so rich of a film that multiple viewings are required; I know it will for me.