At some point during "A Cure for Wellness," a lavish and interminable new thriller from writer-director Gore Verbinski, I found myself wondering which movie it would pair best with on a double bill. Maybe "Crimson Peak" or "Shutter Island," two similarly gorgeous-looking auteur forays into the realms of gothic horror. Or perhaps Paolo Sorrentino's drama "Youth," which, like "A Cure for Wellness," takes place almost entirely at a luxurious Swiss spa, albeit one with fewer flesh-eating aquatic serpents and bloody dentist's drills in evidence.
By the end of the movie — after 146 minutes' worth of circular puzzles, vague portents and innumerable false endings — it was clear that the best double bill would be one that omitted "A Cure for Wellness" altogether. My mind, feverishly casting about for a suitable companion piece, had in fact been searching for a replacement. When a character asks, "Why would anybody want to leave?" in what I felt certain was going to be the final scene, the question feels far more sinister than anyone could possibly have intended.
You could argue, in the movie's partial defense, that a hopeless sense of entrapment is an entirely appropriate response, and perhaps even the ideal one. The story follows a young Wall Street hotshot named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) whose employers have sent him to retrieve one of their senior executives, Pembroke (Harry Groener), from the Volmer Institute, a palatial Swiss wellness center whose elderly clients have a suspicious habit of never coming back.
When he is suddenly waylaid by an accident, Lockhart is forced to endure the spa's hospitality, recuperating under the care of the silver-tongued director, Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), and the coolly efficient blonds who make up most of the nursing staff. His leg may be in a cast (shades of "Rear Window"), but that doesn't stop this impatient patient from trying to find Pembroke or from seeking answers to riddles that — like the intermittent flashbacks to his own troubled past — pop briefly into view before disappearing around the next corner.
For about an hour or so, "A Cure for Wellness" sustains a creepy, clammy tension that draws you along without quite accelerating into outright terror. Like the setting of many a cinematic haunting, the Institute — an amalgam of medieval and World War II-era German locations skillfully integrated by the production designer Eve Stewart — is both repellent and seductive, a place where the pleasures of the pampered elite commingle freely with a deeper, unplaceable sense of dread.
The camera, following Lockhart as he hobbles through a labyrinth of antiseptic corridors and steam baths, luxuriates in a claustrophobic atmosphere that not even a few shafts of daylight, or an occasional cutaway to the castle's staggeringly scenic grounds, can entirely dispel. There is a sting of truth in Dr. Volmer's stern warning that life in the fast lane can be detrimental to one's health, but also in the growing awareness that his proposed solution — an extended retreat from the outside world — might pose its dangers as well.
The film's world is so vividly realized — especially as shot by Bojan Bazelli, whose crisp, capacious images are tinted just the right queasy-making shade of Listerine — that for a while you're inclined to give Verbinski the benefit of the doubt. You follow along even when the plot begins to twist and kink in ways that are not particularly mysterious or surprising: The staff keep instructing Lockhart to drink the spa water long after he realizes he probably shouldn't, and his encounters with the sanitarium's youngest, most closely guarded patient, Hannah (the perfectly named Mia Goth), feel less like an intriguing new puzzle-piece than a lugubrious distraction.
Still best known for the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, Verbinski is a versatile and enthusiastic B-movie aficionado, a relentless genre sampler who has pillaged (and, at his best, transformed) the clichés and conventions of horror, fantasy and western filmmaking. In "A Cure for Wellness," he evokes the grand tradition of old-school Universal freakouts (particularly "The Phantom of the Opera"), but also the real-world horrors of Nazism and its antecedents, tracing a fantastical lineage between an ancient, purity-obsessed royal bloodline and the kinds of medical experiments that bring Josef Mengele to mind.
Horror is not a genre particularly prized for its cultural and historical sensitivity, and those inclined to fault Verbinski on those particular grounds already have a much more deserving target in his 2013 film, "The Lone Ranger." What "A Cure for Wellness" shares with that failed, valiant attempt at a western reboot — apart from a co-screenwriter, Justin Haythe — is a mad desire to excavate the creaky-but-durable entertainments of Hollywood past, coupled with a calamitous lack of self-restraint that no producer of the era would have sanctioned.
There's something inspiring, if misguided, about the major studios' willingness to keep bankrolling Verbinski's madly outsized visions, even if the results of late haven't proved worthy of the investment. (The glorious exception is his 2013 western cartoon "Rango," which benefited from the constraints that feature animation naturally imposes.) There is tremendous visual craft and inarguable style here, but none of the discipline, the sense of pacing and proportion that would allow the filmmaker's creative instincts to soar rather than merely splutter.
DeHaan, so memorably unsympathetic in movies like "Kill Your Darlings" and "Chronicle," is ideally cast as a surly, skeptical antihero. But not even his intelligent scowl can carry "A Cure for Wellness" through its tediously protracted second half, which bogs down in red herrings — some gratuitous menstrual imagery here, an unnecessary dental exam there — and stultifying, wannabe-shocking imagery.
Much of the latter, like the tableau of a nude Hannah in a porcelain bathtub full of writhing snakes, seems better suited to a gallery exhibit for pervy adolescent aesthetes than a theatrical feature. The terrors we see in "A Cure for Wellness" are never as scary as they are beautiful, but they are never so beautiful as they are arbitrary.
'A Cure for Wellness'
MPAA rating: R, for disturbing violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity and language
Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes
Playing: In general release