Friday, February 17, 2017

A Cure for Wellness: Worse than any disease

A Cure for Wellness (2017) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for graphic nudity, rape, profanity, violence and highly disturbing images

By Derrick Bang

File this one under You’ve Got To Be Kidding.

Successful directors with runaway egos are to be feared. Sooner or later, many of them succumb to self-indulgent, often “long-nurtured” vanity projects that defy reason and emerge as ludicrously bloated and self-indulgent. Some badly dent or even ruin careers; others bankrupt studios.

Having been injured under suspicious circumstances, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) decides
to explore the mysterious sanitarium where none of the resident clients show any
desire to leave.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas stumbled badly, respectively, with 1941 and Howard the Duck. Andy and Lana Wachowski blew their Matrix profits on Speed Racer. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman still get taunted for Ishtar. Eddie Murphy simply didn’t survive the fallout from The Adventures of Pluto Nash; director Renny Harlan suffered the same fate, after Cutthroat Island. Joseph L. Mankiewicz nearly took down Fox, with Cleopatra. Michael Cimino did destroy United Artists, with Heaven’s Gate.

There are many, many more ... and to their company we now can add Gore Verbinski, the arrogant driving force behind A Cure for Wellness.

Savvier Hollywood types should have known better, given that Verbinski already demonstrated his tendency toward wretched excess, with his recent update of The Lone Ranger. But the fact that he also helmed the first three wildly successful Pirates of the Caribbean installments apparently blinded Those In Charge to all the red flags that should have been waving, from their first glimpse of this new project’s misbegotten script.

I’ve a theory that “high-class horror” is an oxymoron. Successfully scary movies, by their very nature, seem to demand modest (even microscopic) budgets and the exhilarating momentum that results from ground-level, guerrilla-style filmmaking; this has been true ever since producer Val Lewton chaperoned his B-unit shockers for RKO Pictures, back in the 1940s.

Commercial success for such endeavors often is a happy surprise, rather than a specific goal.

But the moment an A-list director, armed with a prestige budget, tries to make a “serious” fright flick ... the resulting flop almost is inevitable. See Exhibit A: Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. Oh, it’s beautiful to look at, and Kubrick gets points for instilling a creepy atmosphere ... but scary? Hardly. Unintentionally funny, perhaps, but not terrifying; it’s too antiseptic and soulless to induce nightmares.

Which brings us to A Cure for Wellness, and its ponderous, insufferably calculated pretense of horror. Verbinski didn’t merely direct this bloated travesty; he also co-wrote the original script with Justin Haythe, who also collaborated on The Lone Ranger. (Ahem.) The result gets off to a reasonably promising start — to be fair — but quickly succumbs to laborious, overwrought theatrics and self-indulgently arty tableaus.

As with Kubrick’s Shining, Verbinski’s new film is visually gorgeous; the remote Alpine setting positively sparkles, as viewed through cinematographer Bojan Bazelli’s lens. The opening train and car trips are quite literally breathtaking.

I’ve always felt that secluded health spas were rather creepy in their own right, so setting this tale within one also seemed a good start.

Too bad Verbinski flushes such potential away with the bonkers-stupid adventure that follows.

The premise is simple: Young Wall Street stockbroker Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to retrieve the firm’s CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), who checked into a high-class health spa in the Swiss Alps ... and hasn’t returned. Indeed, once Lockhart reaches this eerily tranquil sanitarium, he finds that none of its many wealthy clients has any desire to leave.

“Why should I?” is the repeated response, somewhat like a rehearsed chant, when Lockhart chats with folks. “I feel so good here.”

Adding to the place’s sense of wrongness, the staff goes out of its way to prevent Lockhart from even seeing Pembroke, insisting that such a meeting would “disrupt” his therapy. Lockhart gets nowhere until finally meeting the facility’s director, the superficially genial but clearly sinister Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who speaks in platitudes about how modern society, by its very tempestuous nature, has made people sick. Even if they don’t realize this.

“Only when we know what ails us,” Volmer smiles, with fortune-cookie sincerity, “can we hope to find the cure.”

Verbinski displays his contemptible sensibilities shortly thereafter, by lingering on the death-throes of an elk struck by a car: a gratuitous, thoroughly deplorable and needlessly gruesome tableau that’s made no less offensive by the knowledge that it’s a CGI creature.

No surprise: Circumstances conspire to keep Lockhart within the institution’s walls. Drink plenty of water, Volmer suggests; it’s “miracle stuff,” and it’ll also offset the dehydration-induced lightheadedness caused by the high elevation.

Alone in his room, Lockhart duly swallows a glassful of the sparkling liquid. Then he notices, sticking to the inside of the glass, a tiny something that wriggles, once he examines it closely.

Despite this, apparently deeming it inconsequential, Lockhart spends the rest of the film blithely drinking the water.

Oh, pul-leaze.

Right there, Verbinski lost control of his film, and the respect of his audience ... and never regained either. As portrayed by DeHaan, Lockhart is smart, cynical and suspicious; there’s simply no way he’d have continued to consume an unknown liquid polluted with such icky little whatzits.

Idiotic behavior and the absence of logic merely intensify, from this point forward.

Given that Volmer and his facility conceal Big, Dark Secrets, it seems odd that Lockhart remains unsupervised, and is allowed to roam freely, discovering various ooky things along the way. You’d think, after the first Big Reveal, that Volmer would wise up and confine Lockhart to his room. Nope. The kid roams freely again, makes another gruesome discovery, earns another reproach from Volmer, and gets sent back to his room. Where he’s once again left unguarded, and free to wander to another level of awfulness.

Again: Oh, pul-leaze.

Along the way, Lockhart discovers that the spa was built from the reconstructed ruins of a castle that was burned to the ground two centuries earlier, when local villagers learned of the resident baron’s unwholesome medical experiments on his family members. Volmer, clearly enchanted by the baron’s work, also is obsessed with purity; everything in the sanitarium is white and immaculately sterile.

The institutional weirdness is augmented further by the presence of Hannah (Mia Goth), a barefoot, mysteriously shy and oddly naïve young woman who can’t help catching Lockhart’s eye. Unlike the other clients, she dresses and behaves more individually. She confesses to having spent her entire life at the sanitarium, under the protective gaze of her guardian, Volmer.

At which point, it’s pretty obvious where we’re going. Eventually.

Very eventually. Because the only truly horrifying thing about this film is that it drones on ... and on ... and on ... for an interminable, unendurable, inexcusable, butt-numbing 146 minutes. Which, to belabor the obvious, is at least an hour too long.

I don’t care who makes it; no horror film can justify such length.

Verbinski fills time by padding his already thin-on-coherence storyline with ludicrously arty tableaus, weird plot detours and gratuitously grotesque shock effects. The elderly patients’ nude bodies are displayed en masse, more than once, with the sort of slow-motion pan that evokes unpleasant memories of Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. These same patients apparently are able to survive long-term drowning, a detail that doesn’t scan even within this numb-nuts setting.

At one point, all of these elderly clients attack Lockhart, en masse, like slow-motion zombies. Say what?

At another charming juncture, Volmer, finally annoyed by Lockhart’s constant intrusions, has one of the young man’s front teeth drilled out. While we watch.

After which, the kid is returned to his room, alone and unsupervised, yet again free to wander and cause trouble. (Does nobody learn in this story?)

Given that we keep getting variations of the same dumb events, over and over and over again, it’s pretty obvious that Verbinski is adept at only one thing: wasting our time.

Isaacs is appropriately ominous as Volmer, but a little of that shtick goes a long way; even he can’t hold our attention with the same mocking gaze and thin-lipped smile. And while we initially sympathize with Lockhart, DeHaan can’t begin to make the kid’s subsequent stupidity reasonable or even comprehensible. His “acting” devolves to little more than bouncing between angry sneers and wide-eyed desperation: lather, rinse and repeat.

As for the appropriately named Goth, she definitely has an otherworldly bearing ... but she can’t act a lick. Not that she gets much of a chance.

By the time Verbinski deigns to answer this insufferably tedious story’s key mystery — which, frankly, has been telegraphed long before — we’ve also endured three (four?) (five?) false endings, en route to a final, laughably unsatisfying denouement. To which everybody in the preview audience, a few weeks back, muttered Thank God.

Avoid this one like the plague. Whatever you do, don’t drink Verbinski’s water.

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