NOTE: This article contains one spoiler that occurs early into the film’s second act.
Your stress, your negative self-beliefs, your anxieties about work and inability to connect to others… they’re all literally killing you. Americans know this, and so we’ve become obsessed with self-improvement: we believe that if we could just rid ourselves of our flaws and emotional baggage, we’d all start living authentic, fulfilling lives free of stress and unhappiness. But it isn’t that easy or even true.
Despite the popularity of insta-cures like the so-called “Master Cleanse” — the two-week fad diet where people binge on lemon juice, maple syrup, salt water and laxatives to shit out all their toxins — doctors call such purges “unsafe and unsustainable”. Real and lasting change usually involves gradual self-work like dieting, exercise, therapy, and meditation.
Even if we could puke up all of our insecurities, what would we do and who would be without them? Sure, we dislike our nervous habits and negative thoughts, but they’re weirdly comforting; they provide some sense of identity despite their ugliness.
Director Bobby Miller explores this very question in his horror film The Master Cleanse, which premiered at the 2016 SXSW film festival. The film’s protagonist Paul (The Big Bang Theory‘s Johnny Galecki) feels spiritually clogged ever since his fiancee broke up with him several years ago, so he signs up with the shadowy-sounding Roberts Institute for a weekend getaway that promises to eliminate and terminate his negativity through a regimen of cabin-rest and four disgusting “cleansing” drinks.
There’s a catch though. Without giving too much away, the drinks cause Paul and his fellow campers to literally vomit up physical manifestations of their insecurities; the campers then have to decide what to do with them and there’s no guarantee which action will lead to genuine happiness.
As each camper develops a different relationship with their baggage, the film suggests there’s no easy answer — even the institute’s founders (played by Oliver Platt and Anjelica Huston) have complicated relationships with their own baggage. Instead of instant healing, The Master Cleanse suggests that purging yourself of all negativity can leave you figuratively lost in the woods or much worse (especially if you half-ass it).
But The Master Cleanse isn’t all emotional trauma and body-horror. It’s mostly handled with a loving and lightly comedic touch with undercurrents of sadness and fantasy, much like “Tub”, Miller’s 2010 short (above) in which a man accidentally fathers a meat-baby after cumming down the shower drain.
Though Miller’s characters ache for intimacy amid modern life, his films carry the implicit message that love and commitment to ideals can help heal our pains when masturbation and miracle cures leave us empty.
(this article was originally published on March 17, 2016)