Gore Verbinski is a very strange figure in my life. I’ve seen every one of his films in theatres, going all the way back to Mousehunt (my mom took me and we were a tad freaked at how horrifying it was before seeing it two more times) and he’s remained an interesting figure. I think he’s only had one truly terrible film, and that’s The Lone Ranger. Everything else is at least interesting, with some of his work being truly incredible. Sure, everyone loves The Ring and Rango is such fun, but there’s one of his films that just confused a lot of people.
Get ready to remember that shot from the trailer that displays a nude Mia Goth in a bathtub full of eels because we’re talking about the 2017 film The Cure for Wellness. I’m spoiling the hell out of it, so if you’ve any interest in this weird little thriller I suggest you watch it first.
I love me some Dane DeHaan. While Chronicle‘s creators are problematic the film is at least interesting. His immediate leap into the superhero genre as Harry Osborn in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a decision that I’m sure looked great on paper, but the film was just a travesty. From there he worked with Terrence Malick in Knight of Cups and Luc Besson in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, two films that I really will stick up for as being weirdly great. After that he was recruited by Gore Verbinski for this odd thriller, a performance I think took a lot out of him. DeHaan looks like the kid in school that was an asshole. He might not have been involved in sports, but his friends were. His daddy had money. He dated all the pretty people in school and got good grades while insulting anyone not on his level. He has THAT energy, and Verbinski weaponized it so perfectly. This character is such an asshole and never completely gets out of that state. This isn’t a redemption for a jerk, it’s merely one suffering both from his asshole tendencies and at the hands of other assholes. His only escape? Just giving up and walking away, and even that is treated as a form of madness. It’s truly the perfect role for him.
His co-star, Mia Goth, is in a different camp here. Goth is an expressive actress that works well in quiet, nervy roles. She gets to play that character type to a degree here, but it’s unfortunately cut off by the reveal that Hannah is actually around 300 years old and surviving on filtered human/eel juice after being produced from incest. It’s unfortunate that Goth, a talented young actress only just getting started in her career, is shackled with so many things that would be difficult to portray. She’s the product of incest, and that’s upsetting enough. She’s also sheltered in an asylum as a “special case” by a sinister man pretending he’s her doctor and not her father. She is also subsequently assaulted by that man in the most upsetting scene I’ve witnessed in a long time. Doctor Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs) is, in fact, Baron von Reichmerl and is her father. The implication seems to be that her father raped his sister, producing her. He then found the kid and raised her as a prisoner in his weird Swiss spa, all the while growing attracted to her as she began to resemble her mother. It’s unfortunate that Verbinski resorted to all of that because it cripples Goth’s performance and she only really gets to shine when she’s out of the castle. Goth does the best she can with the material and handles the more horrific stuff quite well, but there’s only so much one can do with a mess.
And “a mess” is a good way to describe parts of the film. At two hours and twenty-six minutes it’s simply too long. Lurking somewhere in the depths of this is a tight, 70s grindhouse style horror thriller that I could have seen coming from John Carpenter. It’s got the right energy and it’s elevated by Verbinski’s sense of visual style, but the length and fetishization of incestual sexual assault just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It’s too much suffering and leaves me feeling that he hates his characters instead of seeing them as people. There’s no one here that isn’t merely a dick or a victim, and it leaves us with no one to hold onto. I sometimes felt like maybe Hannah was our way into an emotional connection, but it was just hard to connect with someone that detached from reality.
While I didn’t like some of the film I genuinely adored the score. It’s an odd little bit of music that feels curious. Bouncing strings and percussion, eerie and childlike vocalization, and sometimes just haunting and atmospheric sounds make up the majority of the music. There’s even a couple of rousing ballroom dance numbers that get my heart up to cutting a rug, and that’s not something you often find in a horror thriller.
Boja Bazelli shot The Ring for Verbinski (it is the best film on both resumes) and returned to shoot the man’s second horror film. This is, perhaps the most beautiful of the director’s movies. Weird sets and great imagery is used to block shots in a way that feels grounded and otherworldly at the same time. That’s no small feat in a film that climaxes with a 300 year old burn victim fighting for the right to rape his daughter, a scenario that is so outside of the realm of reality that it borders on ridiculous. Nothing here feels real, but it feels familiar at the same time. Most of the shots could have been taken right out of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and it’s usage of space and slowly rotating cameras to make spatial geography digestible. Sequences like the infiltration of the basement and all of the hallucinatory tiny movements while DeHaan’s character descends into madness…just…chef’s kiss.
Do I like A Cure for Wellness? It’s difficult to say, but I’m far more interested in it than I am many films that feel so trapped in the realm of “standard.” Verbinski took a lot of inspiration from films like Asylum  and The Last House on the Left , but he got a little lost along the way. This is, however, the type of experimentation I want from directors with his exciting visual panache. The man that directed the only three Pirates of the Caribbean films worth watching offered us a story about a 300 year old monster that has kept himself and his daughter alive by filtering Swiss water through eels and then rich clients that think they’re going to a spa retreat. That’s insane. That entire thought is insane.