Written by Kyle Hughes
“A Cure for Wellness” is a beautiful looking movie. It has some of the best-crafted atmospheres and shot composition I’ve seen in a while. But that’s just it. This is also why the movie doesn’t work. It spends too much time wanting to be a horror movie and doesn’t pay enough attention to the characters and plot structure to be one.
The visuals in “A Cure for Wellness” are rich. The majority of the film takes place in a sanatorium hidden in the Swiss Alps. Most shots have a golden or green glow to them. This aided by the brutal beauty of the Alps adds up to an almost dream-like quality. But cloaked in all the murky connotations that come with the word sanatorium the film succeeds in poisoning that dream with insidious undercurrents.
The soundtrack by Benjamin Wallfisch is another excellent part of its atmosphere. It perfectly captures the fantasy and discomfort of the visuals and puts it to sound. Jason Issacs and Mia Goth are the last two high points “The Cure for Wellness” has to offer. Issacs plays Dr. Volmer, the head of the sanatorium. His acting is an excellent balance between gentle, hammy, and despicable.
His gentility creates more unease than if he were to be plainly awful. It’s easy to see that Issacs enjoys the role because he hams up the strange and helpful, but not entirely honest doctor. His smiles and forceful kindness are telling, but don’t detract from when he lashes out. They make it that much crueler.
Mia Goth is perfect for her role as Hannah, the youngest patient at the clinic. Goth somehow plays Hannah as both full of wonder, yet haunted and sad. Hannah wanders around the grounds listless and with distant eyes, but in a moment vivacity can erupt from her. It makes her that much stranger, and that much more likable. Unfortunately, someone who is unlikeable is our lead, Lockhart, played be Dane DaHaan.
This isn’t to say that a movie can’t be successful if the lead isn’t likable, but he is neither likable nor dislikeable in this film. He is merely there. DaHaan doesn’t have the nuance to portray Lockhart. The movie sets up Lockhart as a forceful and arrogant, but fragile person. But in the scenes where DaHaan needs to be fragile, he isn’t.
He cannot carry quiet scenes where the depth of his character should be on display. The only scenes where he is convincing are the those where he is cornered and yelling. His flaws are amplified because of the two hours and twenty-six-minute length of the film.
But the length really reveals the lack of direction in the plot structure. Lockhart is given the task to go and retrieve Pembroke, a board member of the company he works for. He meets friction at the sanatorium when he tries to get in contact with Pembroke. And a freak accident prevents Lockhart from leaving. The setup is clear, but afterward, the plot gets lost.
After Lockhart’s accident he still clearly wants to leave, but he also participates with little resistance in treatments that have nothing to do with his car wreck injuries. This demonstrates that the movie is too in love with its eerie set pieces, like old steam baths and a sensory deprivation tank. It meanders from one of these to another for most of the film. There are tense moments in between, but we always seem to end up back in treatment.
When Lockhart sneaks into a restricted area or steals a file, instead of the action rising from that moment the film decides to take a break. We get more scenes of Lockhart or other patients in therapy, or Lockhart staring at the Alps. And all of the tension that was just built dissolves. It’s almost like “A Cure for Wellness” knows that DaHaan can’t sustain his scenes and would rather show us more of the sanatorium’s character than his.
“A Cure for Wellness” doesn’t have its priorities straight. Its’ indulgent visuals should inform the characters and the plot rather than give us a break from them. Its looks and presence are nice, but without thoughtful structure and worthwhile characters, the movie isn’t much more than sinister wallpaper.