Monday, February 20, 2017

In Theaters: A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017)

(US/Germany - 2017)

Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Justin Haythe. Cast: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener, Celia Imrie, Ivo Nandi, Carl Lumbly, David Bishins, Lisa Banes, Adrian Schiller, Tomas Norstrom, Ashok Mandanna, Magnus Krepper, Johannes Krisch, Susanne Wuest, Rebecca Street, Craig Wroe. (R, 146 mins)

It's a safe bet there won't be a more ambitious, audacious, and flat-out weird major-studio horror movie to hit multiplexes this year than A CURE FOR WELLNESS. That title probably isn't going to do it any favors, but in an era where horror films are typified by Blumhouse jump scares, found-footage fatigue, and the unbridled sycophancy of horror hipster scenesters, A CURE FOR WELLNESS seems like it's borne of another time and place. A modern-day gothic throwback, it seems to have been made with little concern for mainstream appeal by Gore Verbinski, who established his genre bona fides with the 2002 RINGU remake THE RING but soon became synonymous with bloated, mega-budget summer fare like the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films. Perhaps seeking a fresh start after the costly flop that was 2013's THE LONE RANGER, Verbinski was obviously allowed to make the film he wanted to make with A CURE FOR WELLNESS, even if 20th Century Fox was only willing to put up half of the $40 million budget, necessitating the involvement of German co-producers Studio Babelsberg. Headlined by recognizable actors but no expensive big names, it's a film so exquisitely crafted and meticulously detailed that it looks like it could've easily cost $200 million. Working from a script by REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and LONE RANGER screenwriter Justin Haythe, Verbinski wears his love of high-class horror on his sleeve throughout: themes and imagery conjure memories of everything from Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING, the dreamlike scenarios of Andrei Tarkovsky, the claustrophobic anxiety of Roman Polanski classics like REPULSION, ROSEMARY'S BABY (especially that lullaby-like theme), and THE TENANT, and the gothic Italian chillers of the 1960s by genre legends like Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti, with the climax especially feeling like a gushing love letter to a certain early 1970s Bava film. Verbinski's playing the long game with A CURE FOR WELLNESS, a film likely to alienate casual moviegoers but one that's intended more for the more hardcore horror devotee to appreciate and dissect for many years to come.

At a major NYC financial investment firm, young hotshot broker Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is given a promotion and a corner office after his predecessor in the job drops dead of a heart attack. It's not long before he's called into the office by acting boss Green (David Bishins): a merger is imminent and Lockhart's been cooking the books. He's threatened with prison ("Have you ever had a 12-inch black dick up your ass?" one of the other honchos spits at him) unless he can retrieve the real boss, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener). Pembroke's been MIA since having a breakdown and checking into the Volmer Institute, a luxurious "wellness spa" housed in a castle in the remote mountains of the Swiss Alps. Green instructs Lockhart to travel to Switzerland and bring Pembroke back to NYC so he can sign off on the merger and pin all the malfeasance--Lockhart's and their own--on him. Once at the spa, Lockhart is stone-walled and given the run-around by everyone, including the spa's head doctor Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Volmer insists Pembroke is not well enough to leave and when Lockhart finally encounters his colleague, Pembroke agrees to get his things together but is quickly admitted to another section of the hospital, with Volmer explaining his "condition" has taken a turn for the worse. Lockhart ends up being admitted to the institute following a horrific car crash when Volmer's driver (Ivo Nandi) hits a deer while taking him to a hotel, and even from inside as a patient, he isn't given any access to Pembroke. While most of the patients are elderly, Lockhart is intrigued by the young and enigmatic Hannah (NYMPHOMANIAC's Mia Goth), a special patient whose parents died years earlier and who has been in Volmer's care since. Lockhart is subjected to bizarre treatments, including time spent in a sensory deprivation tank and an iron lung, and is haunted by recurring visions of large eels, with himself and all the patients constantly instructed to drink plenty of the purifying water and take regular eye-dropper oral doses of the liquid vitamin that Volmer insists is vital to their wellness.

You can count all the great two-and-half-hour horror movies on one hand, and while it's easy for an excitable and enthused genre fan to overrate something like A CURE FOR WELLNESS (some of the plot doesn't hold up under intense scrutiny, especially when it comes to Lockhart's bosses' slow response to his extended absence), it's also a near-certainty that you've never seen a genre mash-up quite like this one. Refreshingly, it's played completely straight and dead serious, never going for winking irony, cheap quips, or lazy references. Verbinski and Haythe set the ominous mood from the get-go, and it just gets more freakishly bizarre with each new plot turn as it crescendos into a symphony of absolute madness by the final act. Lockhart spends much of the film convinced Volmer and the staff are trying to drive him insane, but with the help of another patient, puzzle enthusiast Victoria (Celia Imrie), he discovers that the compound is a 200-year-old castle built over the partial ruins of another, the ancestral home of the demented Baron von Reichmerl, a 19th century nobleman killed by the villagers over his obsession with creating a pure and incestuous bloodline with his sister. A CURE FOR WELLNESS is set in the present day but seems to come from the 1970s. It's a triumph of chilling atmosphere, with ornate sets and carefully composed shots that give it a vivid feeling of cold, classic Kubrick. The three leads are fantastic, from the waif-like Goth conveying the naive innocence of Hannah to the historically annoying DeHaan, who's matured as an actor since the overrated CHRONICLE, which established him as a sort of excruciatingly whiny Emo DiCaprio. Isaacs has a blast in a vintage mad doctor role, relishing the sinister machinations of Volmer (what a classic-sounding mad doctor name) but never going overboard into hammy scenery-chewing. Indeed, in his controlled performance and the way Volmer plays his cards close to the vest, Isaacs is very reminiscent of a mid-career Christopher Plummer (I wouldn't be surprised if a studio suit at some point in the planning stages suggested Verbinski get Johnny Depp to play Volmer). A CURE FOR WELLNESS isn't for everyone, and if it's not your thing, then its 146 minutes will be an endurance test. But for the schooled and well-traveled horror scholar, it's probably the giddiest time you'll have with a genre offering this year. I don't care if this tanks in theaters--the fact that it even exists and I could see it in a theater in the year 2017 is a small miracle worth celebrating.

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