Directed By Mariama Diallo
Starring – Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Julia Nightingale
The Plot – Two African American women (Hall, Renee) begin to share disturbing experiences while attending a predominantly white college in New England.
Rated R for adult language and some drug use
The most impactful horror films today bring with them an ample slice of cultural commentary that values reality ahead of the monsters that go bump in the night, and “Master” is certainly no different in this regard. Blessed with a screenplay that cleverly deconstructs racism through the perspective of a black youth attending school at an all-white college, the film shapes uncomfortable interactions with subtle digs of dialogue that not only elevates and enhances the detection of prejudice within smiling-faced deliveries, but also helps to vividly paint an atmospheric isolation for the film’s dual African-American protagonists that pushes the film’s ominous enveloping to claustrophobically insufferable heights. An atmosphere brought on all the more psychological from Diallo’s superb debut direction behind the lens, where she supplants palpable aspects of production to help flesh out this numbing nightmare that effectively triggers such a dreaded disposition and haunts the historic setting in ways that never required any of the paranormal entities that it unfortunately summoned. The neon luminescence of reds and corresponding shadow-play give the tense sequences a fantastical element of lucid reality that competently sets the stage for the unshakeable fear that lingers deep beneath a character’s subconscious, and the picture perfect setting of this centuries old college campus, with quietly damp corridors, gives off an eerie ambiance that wholeheartedly matches in design the outdated ideals of those encased, persisting with an evidential emptiness that voids it of any heart or nourishing sprouts of levity that lessen its overwhelming audacities. Front and center are the dynamic duo of Hall and Renee, who hand in compelling characters and pivotal performances for two entirely different perspectives in simultaneous protagonists. Hall further proves her dramatic capabilities with a turn that not only bears the brunt of a tortured and arduous past, complete with a long-winded pay-off in the third act that spellbinds, but also one that smothers her shoulders in carrying the weight and responsibility of black expectations inside of this stuffy conservative college that often gets the best of her. Renee’s work is the polar opposite, but nonetheless meaningful, crafting a vulnerability and innocence to Jasmine in a way that makes it very easy to invest in her plight, yet thoroughly defined in ways that evolve her character transformation the longer the film persists.
Even with technical elements of Diallo’s construction that give the film an ominous durability, the screenplay of the film can’t stop tripping over its own two feet with an execution pulling in a lot of different directions creatively. For starters, the film is a bit of a slow burn, clocking in at 90 minutes, but feeling twice that with a plodding first half of the film that is as dryly unsatisfying with what it uses to entertain the audience. There’s certainly an issue of progression in the narrative, instilling four different dream sequences that continuously hit on this ages-old trope, all the while grounding the story’s unraveling in ways that start to become frustrating as the film eventually learns to transition on. Aside from this, in addition to the arcs of the two protagonists, there’s also one with another black teacher at the college seeking tenure that often took away too much attention from Jasmine’s arc. You start to notice this creative theft at the movie’s midway point, when Jasmine becomes a supporting character in a film that exclusively featured her initially, all for a perspective that never felt as compelling for me as a youth embarking on her own for the first time in her life and having to overcome the paralyzing perils of racism. This leads me to the movie’s climax, as an unnecessary twist that doesn’t add a degree of variance or lasting impact manifests out of thin air and makes even less sense when compared to what transpired before this was ever revealed. The reveal itself isn’t even original, as this very thing transpired at George Washington University two years ago, and actually included stakes and consequences as a result of its lasting impact. Here, it comes and goes with about as much relevance as background extras and condemns the ending to an anticlimactic credits roll that that will inevitably elicit a groan from the audience who received an underwhelming pay-off for their troubles. Finally, while the film is classified as a horror movie, first and foremost, the desire to weave a paranormal encompassing feels vitally ill-timed, especially with the lack of exploration that leaves its aspects unexplained. For my money, the film could still be a horror film driven entirely by racist reality (Get Out). It’s those situations that are far more tense and unsettling than anything paranormal lurking under a bed or floating down a desolate hallway, taking away the psychological in psychological terror that the film required to stand and cement its legacy with the racially-fueled fever trips of the contemporary age.
Though a stirring and psychologically unsettling commentary on the ghosts of America that unfortunately grow stronger with time, “Master” is often a victim of its own contrived creativity, combining two forms of horror that are every bit as confrontational as the racially-inspired conflict persisting in focus. Even still, Hall is a dramatic revelation, and Diallo offers plenty of promise in the uniqueness of her direction that will ultimately live to see another, better day.
My Grade: 5/10 or D+