Sure to be one of the strangest major studio releases of the year, Gore Verbinski's "A Cure for Wellness" is as admirable as it is frustrating. The director's first horror film since 2002's "The Ring" showcases his distinctively busy, baroque visual style more vividly while retaining the earlier film's creeping dread and genuine ability to unnerve. So engaging is the film in its oddness that one can almost overlook the sense that it's not actually going much of anywhere.
Dane DeHaan stars as Lockhart, a smarmy financial services executive sent to collect his company's CEO from a "wellness center" in the Swiss Alps. After breaking his leg in a car accident, Lockhart becomes a patient, suffering bizarre hallucinations and extreme treatments at the hands of sinister hospital director Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), all while learning more about the disturbing past of the facility and how it might be tied to the present.
The "investigator becomes the patient/starts to doubt sanity" is a common horror storyline, most recently seen in Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island." Verbinski puts his own eccentric spin on the story, however, creating several dozen memorable images (eels slithering around a woman in a bathtub, humans in a giant mason jar-like aquarium) and generally making the most out of the distinctively Gothic location. Verbinski's greatest skill is his ability to use the wideness of his frame to pack in information and the tightness of a close-up to emphasize the grotesqueness of his characters.
That carries over into the performances, all of which benefit from a slightly off quality. DeHaan looks a bit like he could be Leonardo DiCaprio's sickly younger brother, and indeed, his performance is a bit like someone moved an equally smug but less powerful sibling of "The Wolf of Wall Street's" Jordan Belfort to "Shutter Island." The actor plays it with all condescending tones and snide lip curls, communicating a sense of East Coast entitlement that gives his psychological and physical tortures a sense of dark humor. Isaacs is equally good as a doctor whose soothing demeanor always has a Dracula-esque note of menace to it, while the aptly named Mia Goth's is suitably haunted as a patient of special interest to both men.
But while the eccentricities from Verbinski's oddball blockbusters (the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, the messy but really not that bad "The Lone Ranger") carry over, so does those films' sense of elephantiasis. At 146 minutes, "A Cure for Wellness" is long, and feels it, with no real sense of direction of forward momentum. It's less a story than a series of creepy peaks and comparative valleys, with Lockhart bumping up against sinister hospital staff and increasingly macabre experiments without a sense of real escalation. By the time the truth is revealed, we're already a bit deadened, and the lurid turn the film takes can't help but feel both ineffective and a bit gross.
There's a question as to what Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe are actually getting at, as well. While the director seems to be making a stab at both the parasitic nature of both the modern rich (capitalists) and the old rich (the aristocratic Europeans), he never articulates a connection, and the first group is an afterthought by the end. There's a richness of image that isn't matched with a richness of feeling (something that wasn't lacking in "Shutter Island," a film whose predictable plot is more than buoyed by the depth of its sense of guilt). It's destined to be a cult object, however, where its peculiarities can outshine its deficiencies.