I'm a sucker for a good train shot, and there's a lovely one in the opening minutes of A Cure for Wellness. The camera is fixed on the side of the train as it enters a tunnel, with its mirrored windows reflecting the beautiful landscape before we are immersed in darkness. Inside the train we find Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a cocky and conniving young up-and-comer at a New York business empire. Surrounded by paperwork, tapping away at a laptop, yelling instructions into a phone and with a rumpled suit and bags under his eyes – Lockhart looks like a man in need of a break, so it's perhaps fortuitous that his destination is a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps.
Lockhart has been despatched to this location and tasked with the retrieval of a senior partner at the firm, whose presence is required to cover up some financial chicanery and whose last correspondence suggested he had lost his mind. Of course, we know where this is all going. The idyllic spot Lockhart is introduced to is covering up a dark and disturbing secret – something in the water, you might say. As the car carrying Lockhart winds its way through the mountains, we get hints that all is not as it seems. The driver notes that not many of the patients he drives up the mountain ever seem to come back down, and Lockhart is told of a local legend from centuries earlier related to the castle that adds to the sense of gothic horror. The air is certainly thick with foreboding. In fact, it's so thick we can hardly breathe.
Gore Verbinski, the director of A Cure for Wellness, takes great pains to create an unnerving, enveloping atmosphere. The film reveals its secrets in stages; through the smiling, white-clad patients engaged in exercise or or other activities in the sunshine; into the corridors of the centre – where something seems just a little off with the staff – and finally into the bowels of the building, which are murky and damp and rife with unpleasant, slippery shocks. Verbinski and his cinematographer Bojan Bazelli keep finding off-kilter angles and perspectives to view this environment from – a high-angle shot through the entwined snakes on top of the iron gates; a reflection in the eye of a stuffed animal – but the opulent style has been layered onto a sketchy, hole-ridden story that can't support the weight. The narrative is basically a series of gross-out moments tied together by writing that makes no sense in the moment and even less in retrospect. Lockhart is a nothing character who only has occasional oblique flashbacks to his parents' deaths to give him an added dimension, while Jason Isaacs (as the smilingly malevolent doctor) and Mia Goth (as a ghostly waif) do as much as they can with their thin roles, but both are betrayed by the ridiculous and ugly path the film pushes them down.
A Cure for Wellness is a film blatantly indebted to other pictures, with the biggest shadow being cast by Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, but that film had a coherent vision and a crucial emotional core, both of which it lacks. The film that most readily came to mind for me, however, was Lucile Hadžihalilović's Evolution, which shares similarities in both its content and its style, but Hadžihalilović's film is almost half the length of Verbinski's, and she makes every moment count. A Cure for Wellness runs for 146 minutes and the solemn, ponderous approach to this material makes it feel much longer. The handful of inventive ideas and surprising images are too few and far between to make up for the fatuous plotting and the wearying emptiness of the whole enterprise, and while many have applauded the fact that a film this unusual is being distributed by a major studio, shouldn't we ask why a $40 million studio release is so witless, hollow and incoherent? Why it feels ultra-polished and yet strangely unfinished? We yearn for studio films that are adventurous, original and adult, but it will take better movies than this interminable nonsense to cure the malaise afflicting mainstream American cinema.