'The Master Cleanse': SXSW Review

Courtesy of SXSW
A hard-to-pigeonhole supernatural fable.

Johnny Galecki should probably just have gone the green-juice route.

An icky fable that echoes much in the field of self-help by taking useful metaphors quite literally, Bobby Miller's The Master Cleanse watches as four retreat-goers learn that the nasty stuff clogging their innards isn't done with them once it leaves their bodies. Neither a comedy nor a horror pic, though it has elements of both, the film is serious about the emotional baggage its heroes carry — despite transforming it into quick-growing critters that must be killed for the sake of closure. A tough sell commercially, it will rely on big names in the cast and on (semi-helpful) Cronenberg comparisons to reach auds beyond the fest circuit.

Johnny Galecki stars as Paul, a regular guy whose life has stalled some years after his fiancee jilted him. After seeing an ad for a nature retreat promising to heal broken people for free, his response is not "avoid this frightening cult" but "may I attend your informational session?"

He winds up in the woods with Maggie (Anna Friel), a struggling actress he'd like to get to know, and a pair who've come out here as a sort of couples therapy. The retreat's founder Ken Roberts (Oliver Platt) will arrive in a day or two; in the meantime, his partner (Anjelica Huston) wants them to spend the first day drinking a repulsive potion and letting nature take its course.

That course includes lots of vomit and diarrhea (almost all of it offscreen, thankfully). But something else comes up as well: tadpole-like things, both repulsive and weirdly cute, that form emotional attachments to their, er, parents.

We understand quickly that these monsters represent all the negative emotional stuff that presumably stands between these people and happiness, and that some kind of ritual sacrifice is coming. But Paul and Maggie don't put that together until after getting a little too involved with the things (and starting to connect with each other as well). A smart score by Rob Simonsen, Russ Howard III and Brendan Angelides helps Miller make it clear he cares for these characters and isn't setting them up for some kind of ugly satirical end; still, the skin-crawl factor never subsides, and it's difficult to take things completely seriously.

Platt helps on that front. When Ken Roberts arrives, he doesn't fit easily into a stereotypical mold. He doesn't read as a snake-oil merchant, a mind-control guru or any kind of easily pegged villain. He questions his guests sincerely, and speaks clearly. When he pushes Maggie for an honest answer about why she's here, and she tearfully confesses to suffering rejections after "I put myself out there for so long ...," we understand she's meant to stand in for every lonely viewer in the audience who needs reasons to stay open to others.

Master Cleanse isn't the easiest film to open up to. But Miller knows exactly how the third act should play, and he manages (thanks in part to the increasingly intriguing creature work) to reach an emotionally satisfying conclusion without resorting to some big Gremlins-gore action climax. The movie ends as quietly as it begins, but not as unhappily.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Production companies: Alcide Bava Pictures, Bron Studios, Gilbert Films
Cast: Johnny Galecki, Anna Friel, Kyle Gallner, Diana Bang, Kevin J. O'Connor, Oliver Platt, Anjelica Huston
Director-screenwriter: Bobby Miller
Producers: Jordan Horowitz, Aaron L. Gilbert, Johnny Galecki
Executive producers: Gary Gilbert, Margot Hand, Jason Cloth, Alan Simpson, John Raymonds
Director of photography: Michael Fimognari
Production designer: Patrick M. Sullivan, Jr.
Costume designer: Tina Fiorda
Editor: Josh Crockett
Composers: Rob Simonsen, Russ Howard III, Brendan Angelides
Casting directors: Justine Arteta, Kim Davis Wagner
Sales: Deb McIntosh, WME

Not rated, 80 minutes

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