Dane DeHaan is the sickly looking fellow who's typically called upon to play nebbish teenage outcasts and/or backwoods halfwits (see: Chronicle, Lawless). In Gore Verbinski's thriller A Cure for Wellness, out Friday, he's cast against type, as an ambitious financial executive named Lockhart. And his sickliness — those eyes! that pallor! — is here the outgrowth of overwork, of chewing on nicotine gum all day while staring at blinking numbers on bright computer screens. This overwork is not abnormal in Lockhart's world. Quite the opposite. In an opening scene, a big shot at his firm suffers a heart attack and dies. He's alone at the office late one night and, when he collapses, the water from a spilled water cooler seeps out around him rather like blood might in a different sort of death. The camera tilts up and reveals islands of computer screens, monitors ablaze with the technicolor of late-night market reports, impervious to the dying man's convulsions. The title appears. It's one of the film's many striking and awesome tableaus.
"Visionary" director Verbinski, whose career is closely linked to Johnny Depp's — from Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl to Lone Ranger — has produced something unique here. A Cure for Wellness is long and creepy and visually accomplished. But astonishingly, what with its budget and brand-name director, the film belongs to no franchise. It is neither a sequel nor a spinoff nor a reboot. Though not without its demerits, A Cure for Wellness is, praise god, an original story.
Via some bland and borrowed boardroom dialogue, we intuit that Lockhart's firm is on the precipice of a merger, and the board's leadership, cardboard cutouts of venal corporate executives all, are anxious that certain financial crimes not come to light, lest the forthcoming deal be sullied. They need the CEO, who's been absent at a retreat center in the Alps for two weeks. He lately sent a letter which seemed to suggest he'd lost his mind. He no longer wants anything to do with the company. Lockhart is dispatched to Switzerland to retrieve his boss.
Easier said than done. Lockhart arrives at a remote village. The retreat center turns out to be a Wellness Center, housed within a gothic castle on a hill, and it casts a long and sinister shadow over the town, whose punk-rock denizens tend to look upon the crisp professionals in the same disdainful way that the townspeople gaze upon the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Clues about an ignoble history recur — something about medical experiments on the townspeople? A poisoned water supply? A fire? — but Lockhart can't make heads nor tails of it, even after his CEO refuses to leave, Lockhart breaks his leg in a car crash and finally submits to a program of convalescence.
On crutches, Lockhart ambles around the facility, witnessing (and sometimes participating in) its deeply offbeat treatments. Something, it seems clear, is in the water. It's certainly affecting the patients, who are getting visibly worse, not better. Lockhart too. In a familiar psychological device, we are nudged to consider what's real and what's in our protagonist's head. Against the wishes of the facility's director, Volmer (Jason Isaacs), Lockhart investigates the more troubling evidence he's come upon, assisted in his sleuthing by the nymphet Hannah (Mia Goth, of Nymphomaniac Vol. II, who's also married to Shia LeBeouf). It's Hannah who tells Lockhart that "no one ever leaves" the wellness facility, and Hannah upon whom the facility's existence revolves.
The nature of the conspiracy, when it's revealed, is both insane and satisfying (because it's unpredictable), and ultimately makes for a kind of polemic against the cult of wellness — an idea literalized in the film's final act — especially among the pampered corporate set.
At two hours and 26 minutes, it's of course much too long, though in keeping with Verbinski's penchant for bloat. One shudders at the memory of 2007's Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, which clocked in at an unspeakable 2:49. An R rating also might have been reduced to PG-13 without too much trouble, though "disturbing images" abound. Much like the latter Pirates movies, A Cure for Wellness is perhaps the year's worst movie for those with hair-trigger seafood allergies.