Film’s prog­no­sis is, sadly, in­ter­minable

‘A Cure for Well­ness’ suf­fers from a lethal case of red her­rings and wanna-be shocks.

Los Angeles Times - - AT THE MOVIES - JUSTIN CHANG FILM CRITIC justin.chang@la­times.com Twit­ter: @JustinCChang

At some point dur­ing “A Cure for Well­ness,” a lav­ish and in­ter­minable new thriller from writer-di­rec­tor Gore Verbin­ski, I found my­self won­der­ing which movie it would pair best with on a dou­ble bill. Maybe “Crim­son Peak” or “Shut­ter Is­land,” two sim­i­larly gor­geous-look­ing au­teur for­ays into the realms of gothic hor­ror. Or per­haps Paolo Sor­rentino’s drama “Youth,” which, like “A Cure for Well­ness,” takes place al­most en­tirely at a lux­u­ri­ous Swiss spa, al­beit one with fewer flesh-eat­ing aquatic ser­pents and bloody den­tist’s drills in ev­i­dence.

By the end of the movie — after 146 min­utes’ worth of cir­cu­lar puz­zles, vague por­tents and in­nu­mer­able false end­ings — it was clear that the best dou­ble bill would be one that omit­ted “A Cure for Well­ness” al­to­gether. My mind, fever­ishly cast­ing about for a suit­able com­pan­ion piece, had, in fact, been search­ing for a re­place­ment. When a char­ac­ter asks, “Why would any­body want to leave?” in what I felt cer­tain was go­ing to be the fi­nal scene, the ques­tion feels far more sin­is­ter than any­one could pos­si­bly have in­tended.

You could ar­gue, in the movie’s par­tial de­fense, that a hope­less sense of en­trap­ment is an en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse, and per­haps even the ideal one. The story fol­lows a young Wall Street hot­shot named Lock­hart (Dane DeHaan) whose em­ploy­ers have sent him to re­trieve one of their se­nior ex­ec­u­tives, Pem­broke (Harry Groener), from the Volmer In­sti­tute, a pala­tial Swiss well­ness cen­ter whose el­derly clients have a sus­pi­cious habit of never com­ing back.

When he is sud­denly way­laid by an ac­ci­dent, Lock­hart is forced to en­dure the spa’s hos­pi­tal­ity, re­cu­per­at­ing un­der the care of the sil­ver-tongued di­rec­tor, Dr. Hein­rich Volmer (Ja­son Isaacs), and the coolly ef­fi­cient blonds who make up most of the nurs­ing staff. His leg may be in a cast (shades of “Rear Win­dow”), but that doesn’t stop this im­pa­tient pa­tient from try­ing to find Pem­broke or from seek­ing an­swers to rid­dles that — like the in­ter­mit­tent flash­backs to his own trou­bled past — pop briefly into view be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing around the next cor­ner.

For about an hour or so, “A Cure for Well­ness” sus­tains a creepy, clammy ten­sion that draws you along without quite ac­cel­er­at­ing into out­right ter­ror. Like the set­ting of many a cin­e­matic haunt­ing, the In­sti­tute — an amal­gam of me­dieval and World War II-era Ger­man lo­ca­tions skill­fully in­te­grated by the pro­duc­tion de­signer Eve Ste­wart — is both re­pel­lent and se­duc­tive, a place where the plea­sures of the pam­pered elite com­min­gle freely with a deeper, un­place­able sense of dread.

The cam­era, fol­low­ing Lock­hart as he hob­bles through a labyrinth of an­ti­sep­tic cor­ri­dors and steam baths, lux­u­ri­ates in a claus­tro­pho­bic at­mos­phere. There is a sting of truth in Dr. Volmer’s stern warn­ing that life in the fast lane can be detri­men­tal to one’s health, but also in the grow­ing aware­ness that his pro­posed so­lu­tion — an ex­tended re­treat from the out­side world — might pose its dan­gers as well.

The film’s world is so vividly re­al­ized — es­pe­cially as shot by Bo­jan Bazelli, whose crisp, ca­pa­cious im­ages are tinted just the right queasy­mak­ing shade of Lis­ter­ine — that for a while you’re in­clined to give Verbin­ski the ben­e­fit of the doubt. You fol­low along even when the plot be­gins to twist and kink in ways that are not par­tic­u­larly mys­te­ri­ous or sur­pris­ing: The staff keep in­struct­ing Lock­hart to drink the spa wa­ter long after he re­al­izes he prob­a­bly shouldn’t, and his en­coun­ters with the san­i­tar­ium’s youngest, most closely guarded pa­tient, Han­nah (the per­fectly named Mia Goth), feel less like an in­trigu­ing new puz­zle-piece than a lugubri­ous dis­trac­tion.

Still best known for the first three “Pi­rates of the Caribbean” movies, Verbin­ski is a ver­sa­tile and en­thu­si­as­tic B-movie afi­cionado, a re­lent­less genre sam­pler who has pil­laged (and, at his best, trans­formed) the clichés and con­ven­tions of hor­ror, fan­tasy and west­ern film­mak­ing. In “A Cure for Well­ness,” he evokes the grand tra­di­tion of old-school Universal freak­outs (par­tic­u­larly “The Phan­tom of the Opera”), but also the re­al­world hor­rors of Nazism and its an­tecedents, trac­ing a fan­tas­ti­cal lin­eage be­tween an an­cient, pu­rity-ob­sessed royal blood­line and the kinds of med­i­cal ex­per­i­ments that bring Josef Men­gele to mind.

Hor­ror is not a genre par­tic­u­larly prized for its cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal sen­si­tiv­ity, and those in­clined to fault Verbin­ski on those par­tic­u­lar grounds al­ready have a much more de­serv­ing tar­get in his 2013 film, “The Lone Ranger.” What “A Cure for Well­ness” shares with that failed, valiant at­tempt at a west­ern re­boot — apart from a co-screen­writer, Justin Haythe — is a mad de­sire to ex­ca­vate the creaky­but-durable en­ter­tain­ments of Hol­ly­wood past, cou­pled with a calami­tous lack of self-re­straint that no pro­ducer of the era would have sanc­tioned.

There’s some­thing in­spir­ing, if mis­guided, about the ma­jor stu­dios’ will­ing­ness to keep bankrolling Verbin­ski’s madly out­sized vi­sions, even if the re­sults of late haven’t proved wor­thy of the in­vest­ment. (The glo­ri­ous ex­cep­tion is his 2013 west­ern car­toon “Rango,” which ben­e­fited from the con­straints that fea­ture an­i­ma­tion nat­u­rally im­poses.) There is tremen­dous vis­ual craft and inar­guable style here, but none of the dis­ci­pline, the sense of pac­ing and pro­por­tion that would al­low the filmmaker’s cre­ative in­stincts to soar rather than merely splut­ter.

DeHaan, so mem­o­rably un­sym­pa­thetic in movies like “Kill Your Dar­lings” and “Chron­i­cle,” is ideally cast as a surly, skep­ti­cal an­ti­hero. But not even his in­tel­li­gent scowl can carry “A Cure for Well­ness” through its te­diously pro­tracted se­cond half, which bogs down in red her­rings — some gra­tu­itous men­strual im­agery here, an un­nec­es­sary den­tal exam there — and stul­ti­fy­ing, wannabe-shock­ing im­agery.

Much of the lat­ter, like the tableau of a nude Han­nah in a porce­lain bath­tub full of writhing snakes, seems bet­ter suited to a gallery ex­hibit for pervy ado­les­cent aes­thetes than a the­atri­cal fea­ture.

The ter­rors we see in “A Cure for Well­ness” are never as scary as they are beau­ti­ful, but they are never so beau­ti­ful as they are ar­bi­trary.

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