After a Wall Street executive drops dead from a heart attack while working through the night, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is eager to step into his deceased colleague’s shoes, but a bit of ethical chicanery finds him on the chopping block unless he can accomplish a seemingly innocuous task: fly to Switzerland and convince Pembroke (Harry Groener), the firm’s CEO, to return home from an exclusive spa nestled high in the Swiss Alps.
Arriving at the retreat with the full intention of returning home the same evening, Lockhart is stymied by a staff of particularly aloof orderlies and the facility’s head physician, Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who refuses to allow Lockhart to visit his boss until the day’s “treatments” have concluded. A trip back down the mountain to a nearby village culminates in a brutal car accident, and Lockhart awakens to a broken leg and a room of his own – it seems he’s unwittingly become a patient.
To say that something is amiss would be quite the understatement, and director Gore Verbinski is well-versed at creating an atmosphere of unease that gives way to paranoia and dread. As Lockhart gives himself over to Volmer’s unorthodox therapeutic methods, he often finds himself unable to distinguish dreams from reality: is the sensory deprivation tank he submerges himself in actually filled with eels, or is this merely the byproduct of a lifetime of stress manifesting itself in hallucinations? What’s the story with Hannah (Mia Goth), the childlike young patient who has spent nearly her entire life behind the facility’s walls, and of whom Volmer is unusually protective? And what the hell is really going on with the water?
Regrettably, none of these questions – or the others A Cure for Wellness presents – are answered with anything that resembles satisfaction, as Verbinski (with the help of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli) is presumably so focused on creating a stunningly gorgeous film that he forgot to render a cohesive narrative. The excruciating final thirty minutes seems to have been culled from a completely different screenplay that conveniently ignores the established reality of the film, and the “twist” that reveals itself is a surprise only to Lockhart, as the rest of us have long since figured out the “mystery.”
Stripped down to the bare essentials, A Cure for Wellness could have been a tremendously gripping 90-minute exploration of obsession and madness, featuring admirable work from DeHaan and Isaacs. But with a running time of nearly two and a half hours and a finale that elicited a response of “are you fucking kidding me?” from more than a handful of theater patrons, it’s an absolute slog that requires its leads to trade in their own credibility to legitimize a truly absurd premise. But hey, at least it provides some great eye candy – it would have been a shame if the film had been as unpleasant to look at as it was to experience.