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Horror from Pirates of Caribbean director: A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness (18)
Running time 2hr 26mins
Rating: ***

WHAT was Gore Verbinski to do next? Having failed to deliver a new hit, the Pirates of the Caribbean director has found himself exiled from the Hollywood circuit, a trauma that would no doubt reduce other, less seasoned filmmakers to a state of catatonia – the megabudget flop that was 2013’s The Lone Ranger might have appeared the definition of a career-killer (indeed, the film’s star, Johnny Depp, has since gone totally AWOL). His latest, A Cure For Wellness, is the very opposite of what we’ve come to expect from Verbinski – a long, eerie, frequently shocking philosophical chiller with a
photographic vision unlike anything to grace the multiplex of late. Regrettably, it has flopped at the US box office, which makes its case an increasingly urgent one – for all its flaws, the picture should go some way to prove that mainstream horror cinema still has a few tricks up its sleeve, and it stands out as one of the most unlikely directorial comebacks of recent years.

What, A Cure For Wellness asks, does it mean to be ‘well’? It’s quite clear from the get-go what the film is setting us up for, part-Shutter Island, part-Apocalypse Now. Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener),
a sleazy Wall Street high-flyer, has spirited himself away to a remote Swiss clinic, musing cryptically in a letter to the board on an unspecified ‘sickness’. With an unseemly deal on the horizon, Pembroke’s firm charges Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a bratty young executive, with returning him to the US (and, hopefully, sanity). Around this point, the movie trades the glassy coldness of Manhattan for another troubled idyll, a woody Central European landscape dotted with castles and peopled by
superstitious peasants. It’s excess bordering on barmy, but a treat nevertheless, the sheer gothic vision putting even Tim Burton to shame – it’s as if a dense Franz Kafka novel adapted itself for the big screen.

Verbinski’s message is commendably cynical – perhaps the woody old continent, cherished by a certain subclass of wealthy Americans,is little different from the soul-crushing cesspit that is the
corporate New World? The shyster-kings of US finance find their counterpart here in Dr Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), head honcho at the institution Pembroke has imprisoned himself in; he is a man apart from the icy, odious Lockhart, lording over his elderly wards like a kindly storybook father, but there’s something deeply disconcerting about his manner, the way he talks and walks and grins – his hospital, it becomes apparent, is founded upon scientific quackery (or is it?) and his relationship with Hannah (Mia Goth), a ‘special’ patient, has icky overtones. Is he a fraudster? An abuser? Or something worse…?

There are no jump scares in A Cure For Wellness; it dabbles in claustrophobia and creepiness, piling on motifs and bio-horror fare (eels, foetuses, lost teeth) without (for the first hour-or-so at least) actually revealing anything. Although this subtle approach will not play well to many audiences, particularly given the 146-minute runtime, it is by no means overlong, nor is it ever anything other than engrossing. The film loses its patience with viewers in its final act, descending into formulaic storytelling and a rushed resolution where it could otherwise have endeavoured to tie up its key thematic knots. That is, of course, a shame – on a visual and atmospheric level, this is something just short of a masterful piece of work, and it will likely find a cult following in the not-too-distant future.

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