After landing a major account at his NYC financial firm, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan, "Chronicle," "Kill Your Darlings") is called to the partners' boardroom. Expecting a promotion, he is instead informed that his superiors are well aware that he used tactics the FCC would love to hear about, but their real concern is an upcoming merger that will make them all rich that could be squelched because of far reaching misdeed. They need a fall guy, so Lockhart is tasked with travelling to a Swiss spa to retrieve their boss Pembroke (Harry Groener, "About Schmidt") who has holed himself up after undergoing a crisis of conscience. Once there, Lockhart has one roadblock after another erected by the charming yet vaguely sinister Dr. Heinrich Volmer ("Harry Potter's" Lucius Malfoy, Jason Isaacs) who convinces the young man he's in need of treatment himself in "A Cure for Wellness."
For a considerable amount of its almost two and a half hour running time, I was beginning to believe that the man who gave us the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies had had some kind of filmmaking epiphany. Everything about "A Cure for Wellness" was intriguing, from its suggestion of an exploration into how greed and ambition warp men's souls to its startling cinematography (Bojan Bazelli, "Pete's Dragon"), sound and production design/art direction. Creepy set pieces may have been referencing other films (a ballerina figurine equivalent to "Inception's" spinning top, "Marathon Man's" dentistry scene, "Shutter Island" in general), but Verbinski was spinning them into his own, weird world. Then the climax arrives and the whole thing collapses into schlocky Gothic horror that plays like an incestuous version of "The Phantom of the Opera," the film's themes condensed into the most generic platitude. It's like opening a Tiffany box and finding a piece of paste jewelry.
The film's prologue, in which an top selling broker suffers heart failure alone in an after hours office, serves as a warning about life's priorities. The letter Pembroke's left behind reveals deep soul searching, but its recipients, including Lockhart, conclude he's lost his mind. After he's found Pembroke, Lockhart will begin wondering about his own.
In the Swiss alps, Lockhart's picked up by a driver who gives him some sketchy history on the castle (actually Germany's Hohenzollern Castle) with the curing waters high up on a mountain peak. It was owned by a baron who discovered the curative properties of the water trying to save his wife, but he was hated by the villagers who burned down his castle and burned his wife alive. The villagers still view the operation with suspicion.
Lockhart arrives just as visiting hours have ended, but he pushes the icy, smiling nurse until a late meeting with Pembroke is arranged. The man has no interest in leaving the facility. In fact, everyone seems content with the possible exception of Mrs. Watkins (Celia Imrie, "Bridget Jones' Baby"), who's been delving into the facility's history. With Pembroke nowhere in sight, Lockhart, who's been encouraged to drink plenty of water by Volmer, begins to undergo treatments that become more and more horrific. He also meets the only young patient there. Hannah (Mia Goth, "Nymphomaniac: Vol. II") is a naive young girl who has never been outside the grounds. She is awaiting her father whom Volmer has promised will retrieve her when she gets better. Having come to believe people's health is getting worse with Volmer's cure, Lockhart gets a hold of Pembroke's charts and convinces Hannah, who has a bicycle, to accompany him down the mountain road into town where he can consult an outside source. Pieter The Vet (Magnus Krepper) has a startling diagnosis for Pembroke's ills - chronic dehydration.
Flashbacks reveal Lockhart's relationship with his mother, whom he visits in an institutionalized home infrequently and who continues to defend the father Lockhart blames for leaving them. As the film progresses, we learn what actually happened. But Verbinski, who conceived this story with his "Lone Ranger" screenwriter Justin Haythe, hasn't figured out a satisfactory wrap for all the ideas he presents, his mysterious build leading to a big let down. It is the craft of the filmmaking rather than the art of storytelling that is the star here. Bazelli pushes the watery theme with reflection, never more brilliantly than an early shot of a train coming around a corner of an alpine trestle bridge, his camera mounted to reflect passing scenery on the train's silver exterior. It's a breathtaking shot. The sound design allows us to hear water traveling down someone's gullet. Subterranean pipes groan throughout. Interiors suggest "The Great Budapest Hotel" sometime between its glory days and rundown present. Production designer Eve Stewart ("The King's Speech") uses a color palette of white and green, Hannah's blue dress reflected in Lockhart's mom's hand painted ballerina.
"A Cure for Wellness" squanders its promise making for a frustrating film going experience.
Robin did not see this film.
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