Sundance Review: Master
A scan of the critical response to Mariama Diallo’s feature debut paints a picture of division: some love it (Get Out references abound), others think it’s a trainwreck. I’m not entirely surprised — Master is a tricky piece, biting off more than you might expect one relatively short film to be able to chew (at least satisfactorily), and the resulting highs and lows leave one with perhaps more of an appreciation for the ambition than a love for the finished product.
The premise is fairly straightforward: Regina Hall stars as a dean of students at a seemingly storied New England university — a promotion that makes her one of the few women of color among the school’s leadership. As she steps into her new role, she crosses paths with one of her first-year students, Jasmine (Zoe Renee), whose college experience is being marred by implicit and explicit racism from her predominantly white peers, as well as by what she considers unfair treatment by one of the school’s few Black professors, Liv Beckman (Amber Gray).
For many, that would be sufficient meat for a 90-minute picture: a character-driven drama about race and gender dynamics in an elitist university. But Diallo doesn’t settle, choosing instead to blend the collegiate conflicts with the trappings of supernatural and folk horror, layering in elements of witchcraft, possession, rural communities, and racially-motivated violence. It’s the choice that spawns the Jordan Peele comparisons, and for most of the film it pays off, thanks in large part to Diallo’s eye for composition — there’s plenty of creepy imagery to make the audience squirm — and the skill of her lead actors. Hall (doubling up on Sundance ‘22 with this and the excellent Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul) provides a steadying presence and a controlled descent, while Renee stands out as the emotional core of a film that sometimes threatens to lose its way tonally. The breakout, however, may be Gray, a Tony nominee who manages to both over- and under-play a role that ultimately becomes vitally important.
Master’s first two acts are genuinely unsettling, blurring the line between bigoted superstition, historical oppression, and modern-day racism with aplomb. The twists and turns of the third act are a different story however, and where I expect audience division has and will spawn given the mostly unexpected nature of the climax. That being said, the narrative pay-off eludes easy analysis — in the immediate aftermath I was left feeling puzzled and deflated, but the final reveals have grown on me in the interim. While I’m still not sure all Diallo’s decisions are entirely successful, it’s worth appreciating a filmmaker with a clear vision and a willingness to make surprising choices in support of a singular artistic direction. It may take me a while yet to fully determine where I come down on Master, but there’s no question that Diallo’s next project will be a must-see.