At the center of A Cure for Wellness is an intricate puzzle to be solved, and as with any puzzle, two questions must be asked. The first is obvious: Are the pieces of the puzzle intriguing enough to warrant interest in the protagonist's solving of it? The second, which will be addressed later in this review, is whether the solution is worthy of the maze that leads to it. Justin Haythe's screenplay is, for a time anyway, built upon the stuff of great horror literature, with events folding in upon themselves, sympathies shifting ominously, and characters consistently being redefined by the twists of an elaborate narrative that is fascinating to watch as it unfolds and the characters unravel. The whole thing is very much like observing a scientific experiment overseen by a trained puppeteer.
Eventually that precise artistry must crack, and when it does in A Cure for Wellness, it is swift, easily noticeable, and entirely regrettable. Conceptually, it all makes sense. The madness that the film spends at least two of its two-and-a-half hours examining within its characters must become literal, and you must forgive such a roundabout way of reviewing this picture, reader, for I am trying to be as vague as possible. The film does not provide a "twist," insomuch as it provides a solution to its puzzle and an answer to all of the questions that arise from such a puzzle. Here, it's a case of a film so constantly on the edge of falling victim to its own insanity that the arrival of a final push is surely understandable. It's also exactly the risky decision we've come to expect from the movie at hand.
After an unnerving prologue in which one of the higher-ups at a nameless company suffers a heart attack and dies (Director Gore Verbinski juxtaposes the messiness of the incident, complete with an overturned water jug, with an anonymous office space as its background), the story follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), the much younger man who takes over the responsibilities previously held by the deceased. The CEO of the company, though, has vanished, leaving only a note that gives instructions not to attempt any contact and speaks vaguely of a "sickness" that has made him "not well." The board members want Lockhart to attempt contact, though, by sending him to the far-off institution at which the boss was last known to be. There is a merger that can save the company; in his absence, the market is in free-fall.
Lockhart travels to the sanitarium, which is more like a cloistered kingdom, over which Dr. Volmer's (Jason Isaacs) rule is firm but kindly. The nurses and technicians are all busying themselves over the care of their wards, and the patients only offer smiles of encouragement when Lockhart encounters them. There is a legend surrounding the manor in which the santarium rests, and it involves, of course, a search for immortality, a psychotic break, and intervention from a certain religious institution. Has the search led to experiments that are now being conducted on these patients? Is a girl named Hannah (Mia Goth) perhaps the key to this question? Does Lockhart's own tumultuous past provide a clue? It's the spine-tingling stuff of classic psycho horror, each new clue providing more questions than answers.
It's a veneer of sorts, however, because the answer is a lot simpler, if not remotely predictable, than it might seem from afar. The rush to a conclusion is particularly disheartening after two hours of methodical, deliberately paced build-up involving misdirection, sleight of hand, and foreshadowing that is paired with masterly formal decisions from Verbinski, cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (whose use of sickly, muted colors is marvelous), production designer Eve Stewart (who makes the sanitarium into an imposing place), and composer Benjamin Wallfisch (whose creepy opening tune is the driving force of the rest of the musical arrangement). It's as if Verbinski and Haythe felt the need to literalize horror at the end. They needn't, and the climax suffers as a result. Still, A Cure for Wellness is hard to dismiss, as it is a nervy and unsettling creation, like the unsteady work of a mad-genius scientist.
Dane DeHaan (Lockhart), Mia Goth (Hannah), Jason Isaacs (Volmer), Adrian Schiller (Deputy Director), Celia Imrie (Victoria), Ivo Nandi (Enrico), Harry Groener (Pembroke), Tomas Norstrom (Frank), Ashok Mandanna (Ron), Magnus Krepper (Pieter the Vet), Rebecca Street (Lockhart's Mother).
Directed by Gore Verbinski and written by Justin Haythe.
Rated R (disturbing violent content/images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity, language).
Released on February 17, 2017.