For a movie about a Wall Street parasite trapped in a spa from hell, there is little (if any) bite to A Cure for Wellness. Tension is oddly kept slack, with Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) able to navigate the Gothic castle/sanitarium/wellness center-hybrid facility with relative ease, and every opportunity to wring genuine discomfort from its premise is dashed with a quick cut to the next scene. Lockhart–a sickly-looking shit-stain whose most human quality is wanting to put his mother in a home by the beach–travels to the Swiss Alps, under blackmail for his financial indiscretions, to whisk his boss back to New York to authorize a merger. Once at the retreat, he gets runaround from the staff and clue-piecing chatter from some elderly patients. A car accident gets him admitted (or, rather, imprisoned), and Lockhart becomes haunted by visions of his dead father as he gulps down the water and chases leads stringing together mad science, deranged barons, eels and incest.
Despite its subject matter and R-rating, Gore Verbinski’s film seems intended for PG-13 (as with his last attempt at Gothic horror, The Ring). DeHaan himself, with his soft features and Damien Thorn haircut, portrays Lockhart as an even more youthful version of Robert Pattinson’s Cosmopolis yuppie (the opening stretch even involves him talking finances in the back seat of a car). He becomes infatuated with Hannah (Mia Goth), a girl whose dress and demeanor suggests preadolescence. Their relationship is kept at a distance, however, with the shots getting wider and further back the closer they are in proximity. Sexuality crops up, but noncommittally: Lockhart leers at a nurse once, and there’s an incongruous scene of an orderly masturbating to the sight of a topless nurse; even a bit of senior citizen nudity. Yet, the audience is always locked away from these moments, chaste.
Verbinski and his DP, Bojan Bazelli (who worked with the director on The Ring and The Lone Ranger), are far more interested in thresholds. Every twist or development, every clue is preceded by Lockhart (or, in one instance, Hannah) passing through some opening or barrier which signals further danger–a doorway or gate, usually, but a tunnel or even a pool on occasion. The pair take great joy in these moments, building mood with swooping cameras and conspiring with sound design to create some odd rhythms (i.e. the straining creak of Lockhart’s crutches, combined with the tile floor in a sauna). This chilly remoteness typifies the film, suggesting a clinical approach in keeping with its setting. There’s a brief insinuation we’re watching the unraveling mind of Lockhart, but this, too, is filed away and discarded (which also creates a gaping plot hole). What we’re watching is less a horror film and more a rambling series of anecdotes and tangents about dark whimsy.