The idea that the deepest horrors come from within is treated quite literally in “The Master Cleanse,” a curious semi-supernatural concoction that splits the difference between a self-help-therapy satire and an early-Cronenberg creature feature. Featuring a fine cast led by Johnny Galecki, playing a young sad sack who signs up for a three-day juice fast with some decidedly unexpected side effects, writer-director Bobby Miller’s beguiling debut feature proceeds with calm, deliberate steps down its particular rabbit hole. If the result feels a bit underpowered, narrative-wise, with modest commercial prospects at best, it nevertheless touches a chord of bittersweet feeling that a more genre-oriented thriller approach might not have managed.
Recently jilted at the altar, Paul (Galecki) seems destined to drift and wander through life until he sees a TV commercial advertising a spiritual retreat in the mountains and a promise of complete renewal, complete with a handy website (letsgetpure.com). Following the cryptic instructions, Paul finds himself in an anonymous corporate office where he and a few other curious souls are invited to confess their deep emotional pain on camera as a sort of audition reel for the retreat.
In short order Paul finds himself in the mountains with a sardonic aspiring actress named Maggie (Anna Friel) and a younger couple, the douche-y Eric (Kyle Gallner) and the shy Laurie (Diana Bang). After being shown to their own private cabins by an on-site caretaker (Kevin J. O’Connor), the four self-cleansers are soon introduced to their eccentric guide, Lily (Anjelica Huston, all New Age serenity with a hint of steel), who gives each of them several jars of colorful, foul-tasting liquid that will supposedly rid their bodies (and minds) of every last toxin. While Laurie struggles to get through her allotment, Paul, Maggie and Eric muster their courage and drain every last drop.
Viewers who have used juice cleanses to purge their own intestines will be relieved to hear that the evacuation process has been left largely off screen, save for a scene in which Paul regurgitates the contents of his final jar into the sink — and finds, sometime later, that something else has escaped his system. And it appears to be very much alive. To give away more would be ill advised; suffice to say that, in drawing on excellent, low-budget practical effects (modestly enhanced with CGI) and borrowing inspiration from “Gremlins” and other ugly-cute-monster movies of its ilk, Miller has struck upon an ideal means of representing emotional baggage in physical terms — and to show how difficult it can be to part ways with that baggage.
Making a solid first foray into feature filmmaking after a number of shorts, Miller uses genre elements judiciously without becoming enslaved by them. There is a body count of sorts, plus a shadowy glimpse of a demon run amok, but the heeby-jeebies and the touchy-feelies are held in judicious balance. Cleanly shot and paced (by d.p. Michael Fimognari and editor Josh Crockett, respectively), the movie maintains a steadily escalating creepiness without ever devolving into an over-the-top freakout. Even when Oliver Platt turns up late in the third act as the cleansing movement’s cultish leader, his affect is tinged with more melancholy than menace, as well as a gracious understanding of human frailty.
Which might also be said of “The Master Cleanse,” particularly in the tender, unforced rapport that develops between Paul and Maggie — a bond that they are forced to cement, but also sever, in the quietly moving final scene. Galecki is sturdily likable as a slow-witted but good-hearted guy honestly trying to improve his lot in life, while Friel’s initially frosty performance thaws to poignantly reveal Maggie’s own complicated motives as yet another woman chewed up and spat out by Hollywood. You might wish that the ending, and the story overall, had packed a bit more dramatic oomph, but Miller’s decision to keep the emphasis entirely on character and theme shows impressive confidence. He gives the movie all the juice it needs.