For most of its runtime, “A Cure for Wellness” plays like a poor man’s version of Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.” But where that film had the advantage of stellar source material and one of the greatest directors to ever live, “A Cure for Wellness” has Gore Verbinski, the man behind “The Lone Ranger.” That’s not to say that this is a bad movie. There is certainly plenty to like here, and the story — that of a young businessman who is sent to a mysterious wellness center to retrieve his boss — is initially intriguing, but the whole thing labors under the feeling that a more experienced hand could have polished it to the point of greatness.
Instead, “A Cure for Wellness” is a Verbinski film through and through. It’s weird. It’s creepy. And, by God, is it long. Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, it feels like a flick in desperate need of editing, particularly in the first act, where a steady stream of flashbacks disrupts the pacing and several scenes pass without contributing anything to character, plot or scares. At least in Verbinski’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, audience had the swashbuckling tone and fun characters to gravitate towards when the story dragged. Here, there is nothing besides a central mystery that is too poorly developed to be truly captivating.
But even if “A Cure for Wellness” had asked a clear and intriguing question right off the bat, Justin Haythe’s (“Snitch”) script does it no favors. The dialogue is the worst part of the movie, as it is so on-the-nose that guessing the twists is all too easy. By the halfway point of the film, everything has been so telegraphed that later scenes that could have been surprising are robbed of their heft. Foreshadowing twists is a necessity in order to make repeat viewings that much more enjoyable, but Haythe crosses a line here.
Finally, at around the midpoint of the film, the pacing picks up and the story becomes interesting, allowing Verbinski to indulge in his most ridiculously weird dreams on screen for all to see. The first half isn’t entirely devoid of scares, for example a creepy scene in a steam bath, but these moments were drowned in the then-uninteresting plot. But “A Cure for Wellness” cuts loose in the second half. Verbinski shows able command of the horror, switching from gross-out scenes to psychological thrills to a distinctly gothic, Edgar Allan Poe-influenced feel, oftentimes within the space of a single scene.
Visually, “A Cure for Wellness” is unassailable. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (“Pete’s Dragon”) and production designer Eve Stewart (“The Danish Girl”) construct a world that is simultaneously reminiscent of the aforementioned “Shutter Island,” yet something all its own. The darkness of the outside world clashes with the bright, almost sterile wellness center, giving it an otherworldly appeal. Even during the film’s worst moments, the visuals make it bearable.
The performances do the movie a service, as well. Dane DeHaan (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) gets progressively better as “A Cure for Wellness” goes along; he begins as a stereotypical young businessman who speaks in nothing but sanctimonious monologues and smug one-liners and ends as a character worthy of DeHaan’s range with whom audiences can actually begin to sympathize in his fear.
The real star of the film is Jason Isaacs (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2”) as the head of the wellness center. As Dr. Heinrich Volmer, Isaacs infuses every line he’s given with the kind of creepy energy that much of the first half of the movie needed. He alone avoids the pitfalls of the dialogue to create a gloriously entertaining antagonist, and he only gets better as the film peels back the layers of his character.
Gore Verbinski makes weird movies. Even when the films are ostensibly for kids, like his excellent “Rango,” they’re almost stunningly kooky. “A Cure for Wellness” is no different. If Verbinski had shown the restraint with the runtime that he showed for the first half, the movie might have been great, but as it stands, his newest is a plodding yet occasionally entertaining entry into the gothic horror genre.