NEW YORK, N.Y. – Say what you will about Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger,” but it didn’t lack for ambition.
Verbinski’s $215 million film was a bid to reorient the Texas Ranger tale around its Native American sidekick, Tonto (Johnny Depp), and reinvigorate the Western with rollicking blockbuster extravagance. It was both amusement park ride and commentary on American (and movie) history.
It was, of course, a massive disappointment, leading to a write-down for Disney of at least $160 million. So how do you follow up a flop like “The Lone Ranger”? If you’re Verbinski, with a movie about the dangers of ambition.
“It’s not an affliction I consider myself immune to,” the director says with a chuckle in an interview.
Four years after “The Lone Ranger,” Verbinski, the director of the lucrative “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and the Oscar-winning animated tale “Rango,” has returned with “A Cure for Wellness.” The film, which opens Friday, is a lush, gothic thriller about a snide, unscrupulous and striving Wall Street stockbroker (Dane DeHaan) who’s sent to a remote Swiss spa to fetch his company’s CEO. He soon becomes suspicious of the place’s dark mysteries and healing waters.
In budget (approximately $50 million) and genre (horror), it’s something of a return for Verbinski, whose “The Ring” (2002) propelled him to the top ranks of big-budget filmmakers and led to him becoming the custodian of the “Pirates” franchise.
“This was starting over,” Verbinski says. “I went to Germany. Aside from Bojan Bazelli, the cinematographer, I didn’t know a single person on the crew.”
But if anyone expected a docile retreat for Verbinski, “A Cure for Wellness” is not it. Though its budget was roughly a quarter of what it was for “The Lone Ranger,” it’s just as detailed, decorated and lengthy. The only issue for Verbinski with the 146-minute running time, he says, was trimming it down from more than three hours.
For a filmmaker who has often worked from previously existing material — if only a theme park ride in the case of “Pirates” — the chance to tell an original story meant a fresh canvas.
“Hollywood has made this massive push to ‘event-ize’ everything. As a result, all the writers are fleeing to TV. You see the fabric ripping apart,” he says. “It’s easier to get $158 million or $8 million to make a movie than it is to get $38 million. But when everyone is running away from the middle, I think there are opportunities there.”
Verbinski, 52, is the son of a nuclear physicist and it’s not hard to see a scientific precision in both his calm, deliberate manner and in the thick, carefully summoned atmospheres of his films. The appeal of “Cure for Wellness,” he says, was playing with the idea of sickness. “He’s a contagion,” he says of DeHaan’s Lockhart.
He’s a filmmaker of grand excess: of lavish production design, of big, costumed performances and of endless cinematic references. “Rango,” which was the first animated feature for the effects leader Industrial Light & Magic, was especially stuffed with nods to movies as varied as “Chinatown,” ”Star Wars,” ”Cat Ballou” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Of his film inspirations, Verbinski says: “If you want to make a creature with a giraffe head and an elephant body, you need to have before seen both a giraffe and an elephant.”
“A Cure for Wellness,” too, is a homage to B-movies and their evocative, dreamlike atmospheres. “There’s something about those old film noirs, the way you hear the sounds of the footsteps a little too loudly,” Verbinski says. Viewers will quickly note on ode to “The Shining” in a tracking shot of Lockhart’s car winding up through the Alps. The Henry James adaption “The Innocents,” with Deborah Kerr, was another inspiration.
Whether audiences will go for it will be a test for Verbinski. Reviews, while respectful of the film’s craft, haven’t been good. And the lengths distributor 20th Century Fox has gone to in order to sell “A Cure for Wellness” have raised some eyebrows. (For a viral marketing campaign, the studio used fake news sites to lure moviegoers.)
But it should be noted that “The Lone Ranger” has been warmly reappraised by some critics; it has its defenders . Perhaps “A Cure for Wellness” will, too.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP