Gore Verbinski is probably used to being underappreciated by now, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating, I’m sure. His films The Mexican, The Weather Man, the two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and the terrific The Lone Ranger were all wrongly maligned by critics and many film buffs. This weekend, his latest film — A Cure For Wellness — hits theaters amid another round of negative buzz despite the fact it’s actually the first impressive, entertaining horror movie of the year, with some notable flaws that still ultimately don’t derail Verbinski’s masterful artistic vision.
The box office prospects don’t look very promising, unfortunately. With a budget in the $50 million range, the film appears headed for a domestic three-day total in the $5-7 million range and a meager best-case four-day total in the $8-10 million range. Whether it hits on the higher or lower end of expectations depends on how bad turnout is for a poorly reviewed thriller with no marquee star power to help it stand out in a crowd of returning blockbusters like The LEGO Batman Movie, Fifty Shades Darker, and John Wick: Chapter Two, as well as newcomers Fist Fight and The Great Wall.
All signs point to a final North American cume below the $50 million range for A Cure For Wellness, and possibly in the $20-25 million range if it’s a worst-case scenario. It would need to perform significantly stronger than that overseas to have any hope of hitting $100 million, which would probably put it only perhaps two-thirds of the way or so toward covering production and marketing costs.
Which is all very unfortunate, and I hope at least home entertainment will eventually help get this picture in front of more eyeballs, because it deserves a more serious consideration from horror and thriller fans. There are too few auteur filmmakers engaged in original storytelling of such high quality and breathtaking visual splendor as Verbinski offers here.
What makes A Cure For Wellness the year’s best horror thriller so far? The sumptuous visuals and spiral into confusing dream-logic — or more accurately, nightmare-logic — within a castle-like asylum (complete with a sort of dungeon, hidden rooms, vanishing doorways, and mad scientists) sets the stage for a horror production driven by aesthetics and ideas more than pure plotting and character-driven narrative. Don’t get me wrong, the film has plenty of plotting, but in fact the moments of focused plot development are the weaker links in a narrative that really finds its stride the less sense it tries to make and the more it embraces surrealism and the effect of its themes more than the point of them.
I’ve always loved Verbinski’s work, particularly the choices he makes in his visual storytelling. He always gets entertaining performances out of his cast, but he’s at his best when he lets characters become more pure manifestations of a core concept, less about their backstory and motivations than how their very nature propels them toward their destiny within the story. And that allows them to relate in a much more primal way with their environment and the larger themes of Verbinski’s films, so there’s often little distinction between the characters and the settings or events.
In a Cure For Wellness, then, we have nightmarish and dreamlike characters who repeatedly represent pure manifestations of base emotions and the id, all connected by a singular desire to survive and overcome one another in a place where the only way out is to destroy or be destroyed. Visions, memories of dreams or dreams of memories, distorted past and seemingly non-existent present — for time’s passage becomes a question within the walls of the asylum — are the subtext of every scene, making us question whether any of this is real and what it all means.
The trick of it is, we don’t really want specific answers because explanation is often the enemy of mystery and pure visceral effect. Not always, of course, and interpretation of surrealist expression is valid and important, and can enhance a film’s impact. Mulholland Drive is a perfect example, where you can enjoy it for its surrealism while also gaining a far greater appreciation at a whole different intellectual level when you start to pull it apart and examine the hidden meanings. But A Cure For Wellness would benefit vastly more by avoiding explanation, relying on implication and metaphor and surrealism than trying too pointedly to make sense of itself.
For most of its runtime, the film seems to understand those points and largely dodges getting overly explicit in the plotting, opting to allow tone and style and impression drive things forward nicely. However, there are a few big bumps in the road, and then a final swerve in the wrong direction that we need to take a moment to talk about.
There are a couple of characters who serve no purpose aside from information dumps, and we have no idea how they obtained such information in an asylum where presumably detailed news articles and books containing those particular facts would be prohibited. The information actually works against the film’s effectiveness, since it renders the film’s “twists” obvious and pointless. Only the barest of background need be mentioned, as bar-room rumor during the single “vacation” into town, to make the story work. But the information dumps themselves aren’t actually the main problem with A Cure For Wellness — they instead point the way toward the film’s biggest flaw…
When the film reaches what seems to be it’s obvious conclusion with a wonderful bit of dialogue and an eerie final shot of Dane DeHaan, even the information dumps would be mere bumps in the road in an otherwise wonderfully shot, effectively shudder-inducing, admirably bizarre horror story. Unfortunately, that seemingly perfect end-point is ignored, and the film goes on for another 15 or so minutes in a tonally jarring, unnecessary bunch of action, ineffective scares, bloodiness, creepy sexuality (you’ll know what I mean if you see the film), and misguided attempts to explain everything that worked so well precisely because it wasn’t explained.
Because the first two hours were so tonally effective, the climax’s blunt-instrument approach is unsatisfying. The earlier ambiguity about what’s real, the impression of hallucination and nightmare, the foreboding sense that this could be purgatory or Hell, all gives way to literalism and on-the-nose plotting. Some horror aficionados may appreciate the tonal and stylistic shift into horror-climax trappings of a Hammer production, and certainly many mainstream viewers will prefer to have suspicions, theories, and uncertainties cleared up and confirmed.
But the reliance on action fighting, shock for shock’s value, gratuitous nudity (I’m not being prudish, it just seems included unnecessarily and thus a more glaring attempt at appealing to shallow sentiment), and gore is all contrary to the slow, thoughtful, mesmerizing approach of the rest of the film. It’s two hours of Mulholland Drive set in an insane asylum, and then 15 minutes of a monster/mad-scientist movie in a castle, with a couple of shoehorned moments where someone walks on screen to try to explain the story midway through. I’m inclined to think the attempts at convoluted and seemingly wild-hair clues and developments leading up to sudden revelations of information and a final “now it all makes sense” resolution are influenced by Shutter Island, but what worked by necessity there is unwelcome here.
Without the information dumps, we’re left with a mysterious and terrifying series of events and only our imaginations to try to make sense of it all, and then the removal of the out-of-place ending would ensure a more perfectly sinister, supernaturalistic horror that defies explanation and only whispers suggestions of meaning to us from the dark peripheries.
And that’s the film A Cure For Wellness is at heart, mesmerizing and seductively full of implication, not entirely surreal but forever drifting in and out with increasing frequency until madness reigns supreme. With touches of Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, the story does an overall great job mixing classic influences with modern sensibilities and filmmaking, so the effect is a timelessness and classicalness that also feels entirely of today. It’s disappointing that it comes so close to what it should obviously be, and I’m hoping that someone will get hold of it and re-edit it to just remove the information dumps from DeHaan’s fellow “guest” and set the ending in the proper place (a bench is involved), so the film can exist in the form that best delivers on the promise of its premise.
A Cure For Wellness is unlike anything else at the box office right now, and if you’re seeking something other than blockbuster outings, franchise releases, and crowded screenings, I highly recommend you consider Verbinski’s lovely, disturbing offering.