Any review of Master is going to mention Jordan Peele. His patented brand of mixing social issues and horror is something special, to be sure. Peele does it in a way no one else has quite been able to simulate. Master, playing at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, is certainly trying, but with somewhat sporadic success. When it’s trying to make comments about race and institutional racism, it’s compelling. When it’s just trying to scare the crap out of you, it mostly works. It’s when it all tries to be wrapped together that things fall apart just a bit more than you’d hope.
Master has plenty going in its favor, but I do wish it had either committed more to its horror bent or focused in on the institutional racism. Both elements have moments that linger. Unfortunately, they don’t mix quite as well as hoped for. So, you wind up finding one half that you prefer, while wishing there was a bit less of the other.
Set at an elite New England university, one built on the site of a Salem-era witch hunt, a trio of women are looking to find their place. Administrator Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) has just been named the university’s “Master,” which is just an old fashioned name for being the dean of students. There’s also freshman student Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), as well as literature professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray). Each are hoping to find their place, but each also has someone or something standing as a challenge.
As Gail begins to discover what lies behind the school’s hidden smiles, she becomes more and more terrified by its agenda. Jasmine, on the other hand, is confronting the fact that her new home, as well as her classmates, are cold and unwelcoming. Could they also be deadly? At the same time, Liv dukes it out with colleagues who question her right to belong at the university. Obviously, the three of them are not just navigating the politics and privilege at the school, but also in certain cases some horrific manifestations of the school’s haunted past, though perhaps also their present?
Regina Hall leads a solid cast, even if the duties aren’t quite evenly distributed by the rest of those who fill out the film. Her character is the most well-rounded, as Zoe Renee mostly crumbles, while Amber Gray is given short shrift. Hall is the standout, especially in the third act when she starts putting everything together. Supporting players include Bruce Altman, Ella Hunt, Talia Ryder, and more.
Filmmaker Mariama Diallo shows a ton of promise behind the camera. Her direction outdoes her writing here, but there’s reason to believe that she’ll be someone to watch out for. Master has some very strong visuals, with her specific horror tropes being handled well. At its best, this movie can catch you with something disturbing. You just wish Diallo had either made a full on fright flick or leaned harder into the racial drama of it all.
Master teases at something special. Depending on the day, even I would lean more in the direction of a thumbs up than a thumbs down. But, I just can’t shake the sense that both the racial dynamics and the supernatural elements could have landed a bit better. Or, perhaps they just could have mixed a little smoother? If that had been the case, it would have been an easy recommendation. Instead, it’s a Sundance title that I’ll repeatedly go back and forth on…