“Master” was one of a handful of movies I regretfully missed during this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The tense and at times perplexing thriller was quickly snatched up prior to Sundance by Amazon and is now available on their Prime streaming platform. The film is written and directed by first-time filmmaker Mariama Diallo who pulls from reflections on her own feelings and experiences to craft a movie with a strong premise but that can’t quite get out of its own way.
“Master” can best be described as a social horror thriller with a lot to say about race, class, gender and academia. But while its themes are potent, its messy execution ends up undercutting its effectiveness. We’re left with a movie that has a captivating vision but that never seems sure of how to bring that vision to life. Its social commentary is hampered by the film’s borderline hokey characterizations and its sledgehammer-like subtlety. Meanwhile the tacked-on horror elements are underserved and get in the way of the movie’s deeper aims.
The movie (written and directed by Diallo) follows the experiences of three black women at the esteemed (and predominantly white) Ancaster University. The always wonderful Regina Hall plays faculty member Gail Bishop, Ancaster’s new and first black house master. At first Gail is proud of her hard-earned new status and takes pride in creating a welcoming environment for the students under her care.
Yet despite her best efforts, Gail struggles to fully gel with her all-white colleagues who proudly flaunt their self-defined wokeness amid an array of far-from-subtle microaggressions which range from disturbing to downright corny. These scenes are a weird mix – opening up some of the movie’s most essential topics then undercutting them with over-the-top portrayals that almost feel satirical but clearly aren’t meant that way.
Then there’s Jasmine Moore (played by the delightful Zoe Renee), a wide-eyed freshman who arrives at Ancaster in a denim jacket, khaki pants, blue converse, and a big infectious smile. Smart and outgoing, Jasmine has big dreams and works hard to fit in. But she is often met with condescension by her white dorm-mates and even gets mean looks from the black cafeteria workers. In one of the stranger turns, Jasmine is inexplicably assigned the exact dorm room where the college’s first black undergraduate died back in the 1950s.
The third woman is Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), an English professor applying for tenure at the University. Though friends with Gail, Liv is the far more spirited of the two both in style and personality. It’s one reason the university is hesitant to grant her tenure. Another reason is a recently filed dispute accusing Liv of targeting Jasmine by giving her a bad grade. Liv’s story plays more prominently in the second half but sadly goes from mysterious to absurd.
As the movie weaves the three women and their stories together, the themes really come to the surface. Sometimes they’re effectively chilling and uncomfortable. Other times they can be needlessly heavy-handed. And then there’s the entire horror element that tosses in everything but the kitchen sink to try to make things creepy – a maggot infestation, a creepy Mennonite community, a maggot infestation, some silliness about a witch who picks out one freshman each year to possess (or something like that).
In the end, none of the horror stuff is the slightest bit unsettling and it feels tacked on in a vain attempt to fit genre expectations. The moments of true horror comes in the discomfort of watching these three women be swallowed up by an oppressive social structure. But it’s too often curtailed by the glaring on-the-nose dialogue and characterizations. For that reason “Master” never quite reaches the potential it teases, despite the best efforts of a fine cast. “Master” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.