An ambitious young executive is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO from a remote and mysterious ‘wellness center.’ When he begins to unravel the retreat’s terrifying secrets, his sanity is tested, as he finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all the guests there longing for the cure. (From Fox’s original synopsis)
Director Gore Verbinski doesn’t have a great batting average when it comes to ‘good’ movies, but, with the exception of his hyper-bland ‘real world’ dramedies, The Mexican (2001) and The Weather Man (2005), his work is rarely completely devoid of artistic value. Most of this value is entirely aesthetic. Even his garbage-filled, hyper-bloated Disney projects (namely, the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, 2006-2007, and The Lone Ranger, 2013) look nice and feature better action set-pieces than many big-budget studio movies. The unique, Verbinski-esque look has also been attached to a couple of those aforementioned ‘good’ movies, including The Ring (2002), which kickstarted a Hollywood industry of Japanese horror remakes during the last decade. It seems insane that The Ring became Verbinski’s entry point into some of the most expensive fantasy movies ever, rather than the first of a collection of decorative horror movies. It’s just as strange that it took him until 2017 to finally follow-up on The Ring’s alluringly spooky achievements.
A Cure for Wellness is almost exactly the kind of movie I would prefer Verbinski continued making and the kind of R-rated thriller I wish Hollywood enjoyed producing. From a purely visual standpoint, the director fulfills expectations and even presses himself out of his creative comfort zone. His typical super-widescreen, hyper-decorative action style – sort of grotesque-baroque meets Sergio Leone – is replaced with something more akin to the vertically integrated and cold motifs of Stanley Kubrick (the expansive, mountain-scape shots and actress Mia Goth’s passing resemblance to a young Shelley Duvall both draw further comparisons to The Shining) with a neogothic slant. The photography is clean and precise, like the water that ominously sits at the source of the horror, and is matched by a languid editing technique that only really springs to life to startle the audience. Of course, this particular strength – a patient sense of pacing – draws the film beyond a sustainable runtime and, ultimately, it’s way too long, just like almost every one of Verbinski’s other movies.
The screenplay, by Justin Haythe (derived from a story by Verbinski and Haythe), is just about as nonsensical and predictable as the film’s worst reviews have implied. However, the emphasis on clinically detailed style over narrative substance and believable character arcs does fit the overall goals of the material. It’s sort of like a smarter, but more frustrating version of a European horror film from the ‘60s or ‘70s, in which common themes are treated like world-shattering mysteries and the answers to the questions don’t really matter. There’s a touch of Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), a dash of Cold War sci-fi paranoia, and a few scoops of Lovecraftian pulp. However, the scariness doesn’t lie so much in the shocks or stomach-churning eel attacks, but in the irrationality of the situations and the Kafkaesque qualities that frame the main character as the only sane person in an impossibly insane world. In this regard, it’s as if Terry Gilliam made a straight horror movie, which is fitting, since Verbinski’s fantasy movies owe an enormous debt to Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Overall, A Cure for Wellness is a visually lush, genuinely creepy thriller that isn’t as smart as it thinks it is and loses itself in an overlong climax. There’s also a really off-putting, rapey, pseudo-pedophilia subplot that I understand is supposed to be disturbing, but ends feeling deliberately provocative.
A Cure for Wellness was shot using Arri Alexa digital cameras – a first for Verbinski, assuming we aren’t counting the digitally animated Rango (2011). This Blu-ray features a sharp and creepy-looking 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer (imdb.com lists the OAR at 1.66:1, but I didn’t see it in theaters, so I’m not sure). Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli utilize a green/aqua-tinted, desaturated palette very similar to the one they created for The Ring, though they dial back on the grittiness of that production to embrace a smoother, fully digital look. The image is pretty consistently dark in a way that pushes clarity, especially throughout the backgrounds, which are so laced in shadows that sometimes it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on. This also leads to a bit of noise in shaded gradations (usually in warmer hues and skin tones) and some banding where diffused lights are concerned. The cleanliness of the brighter shots never fully smooths over the complex textures and close-ups, particularly in close-up, and in the few scenes that take place outside of the hospital (these feature much heavier contrast, as well). The only other compression issue I notice, besides the occasional noise/banding, are some slight edge haloes along these harsher edges.
A Cure for Wellness is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound. As in the case of many modern horror movies, the sound design plays with dynamic range quite a bit. Long, daunting sequences play out in almost complete quiet that is flecked with exaggerated incidental noise, then slowly build into noisy walls of sound. Dialogue is practically whispered, but remains clear and centered throughout. Composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s score alternates between dreamy piano, string, and vocal motifs that set a gently eerie tone, in addition to punchy scare cues. The softer music is impressively mixed for depth and regularly engages the stereo/surround channels. The louder, more mechanical moments tend to be the most aggressive parts of the track and the foundation of the aforementioned walls of sound.
Extended scene: “It’s Wonderful Here” (4:46, HD) – Further investigation into missing persons and more water-based hallucinations.
Meditations – A collection of surrealistic images set to a calm voice that guides the listener through meditation: Water is the Cure (2:58, HD), Air is the Cure (2:44, HD), Earth is the Cure (2:42, HD)
The Score (4:08, HD) – A soundtrack EPL hosted by composer Benjamin Wallfisch.
Green band trailer, red band trailer, and international trailer
Note: I haven’t kept all of the discs I’ve reviewed over the years, so some, like this one, will not include screen-caps. The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray’s image quality.