Review: Master | SXSW 2022

Score: C-

Director: Mariama Diallo

Cast: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Amber Gray, Bruce Altman

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rated: R

On paper, Master should be one of the most important and unsettling films of the year. In execution, it fails to provoke or scare.

Regina Hall, who can deftly move between silly comedies like Girls Trip and serious dramas like The Hate U Give, is weirdly stiff here as Gail, a professor and "master" of the freshman dorm at a small New England college. One of her young students is Jasmine. Zoe Moore does an admirable job of playing her alienation. But there's little development as to why these two women chose to attend this mostly white liberal arts college.

Before we get to the supernatural elements, they endure all kinds of dirty looks, microaggressions and outright hatred from students, staff and faculty. But to make sure the audience gets the point, the film gets smothered by obvious symbolism, like having maggots infest Gail's house. Why, it's almost as if this institution were rotting from the inside!

The real-life horrors suffered by Jasmine – including death threats, harassment and discrimination – are frightening and realistic enough on their own. Attempts to tenuously connect them to some sort of eternal, supernatural evil make them less scary. The film's odd pace also undercuts the tension. Events occur without a real build. When things take a deadly turn, it's not nearly as impactful as it should be.

But there's still another half hour to go! And so the film switches gears to a weird, out-of-nowhere subplot about falsely presenting as Black, which also involves the weird off-the-grid cult in town (sort of). The film also ends in extremely anticlimactic fashion. Along the way, Diallo got a couple good digs at hypocritical white liberals and the exclusive circles they create in academia. But as satire, horror and even compelling drama, Master fails to make the grade.

*This review originally appeared as part of our 2022 SXSW coverage.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.