A bright spot on a beige blockbuster landscape

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Dane DeHaan in A Cure for Wellness

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One of the biggest drawbacks of high cinematic consumption is that repeated exposure to mediocre product makes it almost impossible for a film to truly surprise me. It sounds like a humblebrag, but in truth I’d much rather not see twists coming from a mile away — it’d make sitting through many generic thrillers that much more enjoyable. All of this to say that I started to see more or less where Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness was going about 45 minutes in; unsurprisingly, the film pretty much went exactly there, and yet I found it pretty enjoyable.

The structure of the “sane man in an insane world” thriller has pretty much been perfected for 60 years, so modern incarnations should bank on the execution rather than the freshness of the twists in order to elevate the material. What Verbinski does to the material here is not so much elevate it; he more or less sticks a lit firecracker up its ass and steps back to avoid any splashback — but there’s always splashback.

Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) works for a high-powered financial firm in New York City. Faced with the dim prospect of having some of his not-so-legal dealings exposed, he accepts an unusual mission from the higher-ups: he’s to travel to Europe to find the company’s CEO, who is staying at an exclusive health resort for very rich people, and bring him back to New York. What Lockhart finds when he gets there seems closer to a cult, where mostly old and definitely rich patients hang on to the head doctor’s (Jason Isaacs) every word and slam down the water he claims has curative powers. Wounded in a car crash when trying to return to civilization, Lockhart is forced to stay and nurse a broken leg, only to discover the dark secrets that lie just below the surface of this tantalizing “cure.”

Verbinski’s made a lot of people a lot of money with the Pirates of the Caribbean films (he also lost them a lot of money with the ill-advised Lone Ranger reboot) and this has allowed him to seemingly write himself a blank cheque when making A Cure for Wellness, a film that commits many cardinal commercial sins, including a) being R-rated; b) not having any huge stars; c) being almost two-and-a-half-hours long, and d) being an extremely dense mishmash of influences including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to classic Hitchcock to William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration, Dario Argento’s Suspiria and, in one particularly gross sequence, Marathon Man’s iconic take on fly-by-night dentistry.

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All of this is extremely uncharacteristic of a studio film in 2017. Even films that have approached what Verbinski is trying to do here (the two most obvious ones that spring to mind are del Toro’s Crimson Peak and Scorsese’s Shudder Island) worked within a certain classicist framework — they were meant to be evocative of the past and of the techniques that typified those movies. Despite its smorgasbord of references (which range from the subtle to the broad-side-of-a-barn obvious), A Cure for Wellness doesn’t really feel like a self-conscious throwback. There’s a difference between making a knowing pastiche and simply working within established parameters, and Verbinski operates under the latter.

It’s a lot to handle, so Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli pull out all the stops, strapping the camera to every possible surface and explicitly framing shots so that visual tricks fall into place (through tinted glass, through magnifying glass and other things that don’t directly involve glass) in a way that’s anything but seamless. A Cure for Wellness is a consciously showy film, and I’m usually pretty wary of this type of stuff — it’s the kind of thing people would bring into CEGEP film class oral presentations because the technique was so obviously picked up, but it generally betrayed a turdly script (one favourite of CEGEP students at Vanier 10-12 years ago was, inexplicably, the all-but-forgotten Ashley Judd/Ewan McGregor vehicle Eye of the Beholder, if that’s any indication). A Cure for Wellness’s script is not so much turdly as it is consciously over-the-top and constructed on a series of whiplash-induced tonal shifts that Verbinski handles with unusual gusto and panache.

Verbinski’s recent output has been, generally speaking, spotty. His take on The Lone Ranger had some very inspired visuals and a very dumb and laborious premise that made it difficult to enjoy some of the more gonzo, bugfuck ideas lodged within the cumbersome mass of expectations that come with such an expensive film. A Cure for Wellness is about as perfect a canvas for Verbinski’s brand as I can imagine, and it gives me hope that he’ll perhaps stop spending 18 months at a time filming Johnny Depp sashaying on a barge out in the ocean and work on something a little more manageable. In the meantime, though, A Cure for Wellness is a more than welcome oddity on the increasingly beige blockbuster landscape. ■

A Cure for Wellness opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 17. Watch the trailer here:

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