“There is no sin except stupidity.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist (1891)
I usually feel sorry for Gore Verbinski, knowing he didn’t become a more renowned director. In a world where films – particular the average American film – are as interchangeable as a row of bran muffins, Verbinski’s movies actually have a visual style. Not content with the usual over-edited flat frames that get converted to horrible 3-D in post, Verbinski lets you know that he isn’t merely sleepwalking through his job as a director – he wants to hold your attention for as long possible through methods that don’t cinematically equate to dangling keys in front of a baby. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a “visionary director,” but he’s come a long way from “the director of Mouse Hunt”. Why he hasn’t achieved the recognition of the infinitely less-talented Zack Snyder, I’ll never know?
But, like Snyder, Verbinski’s skills behind the camera far outweigh his ability to pick scripts. Occasionally he’ll stumble upon one that’s fairly decent (The Weather Man, The Ring, the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie), but most of his choices have been mediocre Hollywood tripe. One hopes that one day he’ll be matched up with a screenwriter capable of supplying compelling words to go along with his striking visuals.
Not only does A Cure for Wellness lack an adequate script, but considering that said script is based on a story Verbinski co-wrote, he has only himself to blame for the film’s shortcomings.
For young Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), there’s nowhere to go but up. The hotshot yuppie is coming off a winning streak when his superiors give him a rather unorthodox task: head to a remote wellness center in the Swiss Alps and retrieve a Mr. Pembroke, a senior partner who has yet to return.
Lockhart does as he’s told, but after being stonewalled by center staff and falling victim to a car accident, he suddenly finds himself counted amongst the center’s patients. At first, it appears he’ll be getting some much needed downtime from work, but he soon begins to suspect there’s something much more sinister afoot.
A Cure for Wellness is a prime example of what Roger Ebert called “the Idiot Plot”. Had the central characters exercised a modicum of common sense, there’s no way this movie would be almost 2 ½ hours long. It features people failing to ask obvious questions, “restricted” areas that are easier to get into than a Burger King wrapper, characters known to be dangerous or insecure are left on their own, and an “action” final so clichéd and predictable that I’m surprised it didn’t take place on the catwalk of an explosion factory. And that’s not even mentioning how this psychological thriller, which claims to be grounded in reality, takes such a ludicrous third act turn for the supernatural that one expects M. Night Shyamalan to jump out and shout “What a twist!”
And the worst part is that there’s a good film buried underneath all the dreck, just dying get out. Verbinski was clearly trying to make an atmospheric gothic horror in the style of the old Hammer films. While he doesn’t fully succeed – a lot of the early “quiet” scenes come off as boring more than scary – there are moments that perfectly capture the films false sense of security and looming dread. When Lockhart wakes up after his accident, he looks out the window and DeHaan gives him the slightest smile that puts us in the audience in the same comfortable place. Moments later he finds a small bug in his drinking water, but dismisses it. An odd coincidence or the sign of something more? Scenes like these are when the film truly shines.
But then Verbinski undermines that success by having his idiot characters do something to show off the gore effects (which, to be fair, do look impressive). It’s as if Verbinski wanted to make the original Wicker Man – the one with Christopher Lee – but didn’t believe his audience was intelligent enough for that, so he decided halfway to make the Nic Cage Wicker Man (with eels in the place of bees).
And that’s the real shame of watching this movie: you can see the homages to all the films which influenced it (there’s a nod to Marathon Man – you can guess which scene), but no real attempt to aspire to their level of greatness. Gore Verbinski may still have the opportunity to become a great film-maker, but as long as his standard for scripts is this low, he has only himself to blame.