I would be very hard-pressed to explain why A Cure for Wellness is, in fact, "good", for the simple reason that it kind of isn't. For one thing, I don't imagine that anyone could possibly be so in love with it (and I am, make no mistake, way the hell in love with it) that they could view that 146-minute running time as anything but a mad indulgence on the part of Gore Verbinski, the film's director and, with Justin Haythe, co-creator of its story. Verbinski, of course, is no stranger to unjustified running times: in 2013, he pointlessly extended The Lone Ranger to such bloated lengths that he sucked all the fun out of what should have been the year's best action sequence, and long before that, he graced the world with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the world's first and only pirate movie with a running time we could feel safe in rounding to "something like three hours". Compared to that bloated beast, A Cure for Wellness is downright svelte.

So anyway, that's the first thing, it's too long. The second thing is that it's just a complete damn mess: A Cure for Wellness is shameless jammed full of all kinds of plotty stuff, fare more plotty stuff than any one film needs, especially when that one film is basically like a mega-budget version of a 1970s Hammer film. Or, if I want to be slightly unfair, like a mega-budget version of a 1970s JesΓΊs Franco film: that would, at least, cover the surprisingly large quantity of female nudity (almost none of it apparently meant to be erotic), and the remarkably appalling narrative ends to which that nudity is applied in the final act.

Of course, Verbinski at his worst still has reservoirs of artistic talent that Franco never had any interest in tapping, and A Cure for Wellness, for all its unabashed sloppiness, has this going for it: it's just the most fucking gorgeous thing. It's early yet to declare the race for the most beautiful live-action film of 2017 over already, but I'll say this: it would have been the most beautiful live-action film of 2016. Awfully showy and bullying in its beauty, maybe, with the kind of in-your-face compositions that offer absolutely no graceful subtlety: by the end of its first minute, A Cure for Wellness has already sucker-punched us with one of its most striking compositions, and one that establishes the most important compositional motif that will end up running through all of those 146 minutes. The good news is that this image also showed up in the film's trailers, which means I can share it with you all now:



It's bold-faced, all-caps filmmaking, but whatever, it sure as hell got my attention. Pretty much everything of note that will happen at any point in A Cure for Wellness is present in that image: the color palette, the gloaming (which of course has everything to do with the color palette, but feels like it should be its own separate thing), the composition according to a very strongly-defined central horizontal line, and above all things, the mirror effect. Oh, how Verbinski does love his mirrors in this film: actual mirrors, functional mirrors (bodies of still water splitting the frame into two halves are all over the place), or just plain symbolic mirrors, where the composition is reversed across one axis or another without an actual doubling of the image, like we see here. The whole thing is intoxicated with balanced compositions, rigidly breaking the image into discrete fields, placing rectangles and frames-within-frames every which where you look. It is a chilly, precise, ruthlessly controlled film.

Which is in a way deliberately ironic, because that's the only part of the movie so precise. The plot is, very much, about losing control and how horrifying that is. It's your standard-issue "the kindly doctors running the asylum are in fact murderous psychopaths" number, most prominently seen in recent years in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, though it is of course older than that. In this case, it's a nameless spa - unless the name is The Institute, which seems entirely in keeping with the off-kilter Old World vibe of the place - up in the Swiss Alps, where the extravagantly rich go to decompress while drinking the place's legendarily restorative waters. One such extravagantly rich person is Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), the CEO of a major New York financial firm that's on the cusp of a deal that will make them even more major. But with Pembroke faffing about in Europe and writing cryptic, angry letters apparently accusing his colleagues of something venal - or perhaps just of being alive in the corrupting atmosphere of the 21st Century - the deal is in jeopardy. Thus a job is dumped in the lap of ambitious young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a bit corrupt in his own right: go to Switzerland and drag Pembroke back, so that the board can blame him for all the various malfeasances that are about to torpedo their deal (including the one Lockhart himself perpetrated). Upon arrival, he finds the very aggressively friendly staff to be completely unhelpful, and none more so than Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the director of the institute. One car accident and broken leg later, Lockhart winds up a temporary patient under Volmer's personal care, and it is here that he starts to go from mildly suspicious to outright paranoid that things are not as they seem, and that the vague ghost stories about the place circulating in the village at the foot of the mountain have some merit to them.

So no, definitely not 146 minutes of material. Basically, A Cure for Wellness is a vampire story: the villagers refuse to talk about the big Gothic pile on top of the hill, except to allude to its centuries-old history of torture and murder; a mysterious young woman, Hannah (Mia Goth) appears in strange places and says inexplicable but threatening things, there are torchlit subterranean caverns, the whole thing. There are some thematic aspects tacked onto that, with musings on the overclocked nature of the modern world, and different forms of socially-acceptable predation on the less powerful (banksters rape the world and are in turn fed into the machinery of the Institute, that sort of thing). But you've got 90% of what you need if I tell you that Lockhart is basically Jonathan Harker, and the main source of the film's creepy, menacing atmosphere is body horror and psychological discombobulation instead of demons and monsters.

It's the discombobulation that drives the film. The interesting thing about the filmmaking in A Cure for Wellness is that, where Bojan Bazelli's cinematography is finely machined to be as precise as possible, the editing by Pete Beaudreau and Lance Pereira is disordered and chaotic. Not, I suspect, by chance. The film is pieced together to maximise our sense of dislocation - it's not exactly that it breaks the rules of continuity, so much as it doesn't follow them. Rather than building up a sense of how physical spaces connect to each other, and how characters are related within a scene, every new cut seems to fracture the material into ever-smaller units. It's a fairly perfect formal embodiment of Lockhart's own increasing feeling of unease and alert nervousness.

And then there's the matter of the plot itself, which spirals outward as it goes along: things start out promising something very simple (rescue the addled-minded patient from the clutches of the evil doctors), get less simple (but the doctors are warlocks or vampires or something), then starts to get actively madcap (it is very clear after a point that some of what we see are Lockhart's hallucinations, but the film refuses to clarify what), then, in its last phase, goes 100% batshit as it starts to draw in such sordid material, vulgarly expressed, as to evoke... well, I brought up Jess Franco already, and I felt a little bad about it, but that's basically where we are. Imagine a Jess Franco film if Jess Franco had a proper budget and was a more focused artist. That's the last fifth of A Cure for Wellness. It's tawdry and wonderful.

(Never seen a Franco film? Then go see A Cure for Wellness and imagine it was made by impatient pornographers. That's the whole career of JesΓΊs Franco).

For all its sloppiness and lack of discipline, A Cure for Wellness has all the goods: thick, oppressive atmosphere in the lighting, in the aged-stained locations and Eve Stewart's production design; in Benjamin Wallfisch's haunted music box score (dominated by a motif associated with Lockhart's apparently-dead mother and Hannah that feels pulled right from one of the tonier gialli of the 1970s); in the rattly, echoing sound mix; in DeHaan's prematurely desiccated, heroin-chic features (I've been a little obsessed with DeHaan's wiry build and, uncomfortably direct stare ever sinceΒ Chronicle back in 2012; it's tremendously exciting to see him wind up in a project that cast him so well after so many missteps). Nearly 15 years after The Ring, it's a great treat to see Verbinski return to horror - not that he's ever completely abandoned it, for every one of his movies in the interim, save for The Weather Man (which remains the most uncharacteristic thing he's ever directed), has at least a single scene and often a great deal more pulling from horror imagery and the storytelling logic of horror. But this is his first full-on genre film in that time, and it's so very much the thing he does best. It is not a clear or efficient piece of storytelling, Lord knows; it's not surprising, either on a scene-by-scene basis or a whole narrative (from a fairly early point, it's clear that there are only a few places the plot can go, and it's only a question of which direction it will choose); and it's definitely more creepy-crawly than scary. But it is one stylish motherfucker, and completely fearless in blasting past good sense and good taste in its attempt to capture morbid, weird moments. It's an idiosyncratic mess, but I am never one to criticise a messy movie when the results hit as hard, and with such filmmaking brio, as they do here.