[Fantasia Review] ‘The Master Cleanse’: An Emotionally Honest Body Horror Comedy
We all carry baggage around deep down in our gut. Whether it be an ex-lover or a lost job or opportunity, this baggage can clog up our insides – making it impossible to move on with our lives. If you somehow live without this baggage, I’d love the number of your therapist.
In his debut feature The Master Cleanse, writer/director Bobby Miller takes this concept of stunting emotional baggage quite literally. Starring Johnny Galecki (I Know What You Did Last Summer), the film is a lot of things – all of them honest. A send up of the self-help dieting fad culture, a Cronenbergian body horror, and a deeply personal look at love, loss, and letting go. Phew. And it’s all rolled up in a darkly comedic package featuring awesome performances and really wicked practical creatures.
Galecki plays Paul, a heartbroken, socially awkward guy who lost his fiancé and his job. Grasping for some meaning in his life, Paul signs up for a spiritual retreat out in the woods, orchestrated by elusive self-help guru Ken Roberts (Oliver Platt). The purification process involves consuming nothing but foul cleansing drinks and meditation. Oh, and caring for a small creature that Paul vomits up the first night of the retreat.
Paul’s joined on the retreat by three other broken people, including Maggie (Anna Friel) and Kyle Gallner (Elm Street remake). Roberts’ mouthpiece is played by none other than Anjelica Huston, who brings a heavy level of grace to the screen. The small ensemble is phenomenal across the board, but Galecki is the anchor. He plays Paul with an incredible amount of vulnerability and honesty. You can’t help but root for the poor bastard.
The other true star is Paul’s “thing” – the tiny tadpole-looking creature he vomits up and feeds bits of chocolate. Every member of the retreat actually barfs up their own creature, which act as manifestations of their personal demons. These things are a seamless combination of animatronics, puppeteers, and touches of CGI. And holy Moses are they adorable. They’re also the source of major conflict for Paul and the others on the retreat, especially when Roberts finally shows up in the flesh and reveals the final step of his cleanse. It ain’t pretty.
Miller balances the horror and comedy really well and like I mentioned, everything on screen feels painfully honest. As the situation with the creatures reaches a tense breaking point, Miller doesn’t let his film dissolve into gore or satire. The Master Cleanse closes on a moment that feels abrupt at first, but makes perfect sense in light of what Paul and Maggie have endured and revealed about themselves.
We’ve been reporting on The Master Cleanse since May 2014, when the cast was announced (although Chloë Sevigny dropped out). It was definitely worth the wait. Miller’s debut is a poignant and darkly funny look at personal demons and how they weigh us down.
The film screened at the ongoing Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.