Studio: XYZ Films
Director: Bobby Miller
Writer: Bobby Miller
Producer: Jordan Horowitz, Aaron L. Gilbert, Johnny Galecki
Stars: Johnny Galecki, Anna Friel, Kyle Gallner, Diana Bang, Kevin J. O’Connor, Oliver Platt, Anjelica Huston
An average man with a disappointing life attends a purification retreat where purged negativity takes on a surprising form.
NOTE: "The Cleanse" was previously titled "The Master Cleanse."
Every man, woman, and child is effectively on his/her own to make what s/he will of “The Cleanse’s” meaning. Writer/director Bobby Miller’s movie is an introspectively intimate portrait, layered with metaphors of varying significance dependent upon how deep one wishes to dive.
Fired from his job, fired by his fiancée, and regularly disturbed by the cheap apartment symphony of rattraps and ribaldry, Paul Berger desperately needs a change. A late-night infomercial for “Let’s Get Pure,” a self-help purification amalgamation of Scientology meets the South Beach Diet, seemingly offers a solution. Paul isn’t keen on the liability waiver’s warning of possible death, but his attraction to fellow applicant Maggie bests prudent preservation instincts.
Eric and Laurie round out the roster of new program participants on this oddball retreat in the woods. Each person is given a personally-formulated concoction of foul-smelling formula and after filling themselves with four jarfuls, stage one of cleansing completes.
That night, Paul’s rumbling stomach interrupts restless slumber for a vomitous trip to the sink. The next morning, Paul has an unexpected new issue at hand when that bit of barf becomes a sentient slug smiling from a Fraggle Rock face.
Paul's purge of negativity has taken physical form as a curious creature with a mogwai-like purr and a cute craving for chocolate. Maggie's has too, though her little thing has the same social reticence and uncertain self as the personality that birthed her. Their mini-monsters soon grow, developing new shapes and behaviors that cease to be charming and start to become alarming. Paul, Maggie, and the others weren't prepared for such a literal cleanse. But another shock is yet to come when the camp’s idolized guru arrives to explain what everyone must do next to finally find purity.
Director Bobby Miller and "The Cleanse" permit you to process Paul's exploration of emotions as you personally see fit. There's an obvious expression about letting go of burdensome blocks impeding achievement of satisfaction and success. Emotional pain and psychological ticks require kid glove care upon first formation, yet when fed or left unchecked, they grow into overwhelming monsters that learn how to hurt you. With this idea in place, that's when "The Cleanse" slinks slowly from the conversation, side-eyeing to see if anyone notices its absent participation in understanding the bulk of interpretation beyond that.
An atypical indie about a mild-mannered man expelling a Jim Henson monster under creepily comical circumstances, "The Cleanse" has an edgy appeal of contemplative commentary and arty auteur atmosphere. Where the movie misuses its unusual allure is in spacing its characteristic quirks well far apart. When its themes aren’t fully in the foreground, in-between scenes induce a mood of malaise where the film falls out of the eccentric groove in which its casually askew reality dwells. In simpler terms, when it isn’t being weird, “The Cleanse” can be a drag.
Movie-wise, technical execution is top notch. Creative designs and incredible animation bring each creature to life with inventive individuality. It’s amazing to admire how much personality can come from the shape of a mouth or positioning of eyes on a puppet. Building the monsters with practical FX adds a welcome retro sheen in step with the movie’s own offbeat sensibilities.
Also of note is a must-own score from a trio of composers combining on a memorably mesmeric soundtrack. A colossal tip of the cap goes to Eskmo, Russ Howard III, and Rob Simonsen. Regardless of what one thinks of the movie, its accompanying music is an incredible entity on its own.
Coming as no surprise after one glance at the cast list, “The Cleanse” features terrific supporting performances, as usual, from veterans Anjelica Huston and Oliver Platt as well as fresher faces Kyle Gallner and Anna Friel. Johnny Galecki fans will be right at home in his familiar-feeling character’s skin, though Galecki could stand to sell Paul’s perpetually nonplussed state with something other than a set in stone eyebrow arch and forehead crease.
Don’t expect another “Bad Milo” (review here) with “The Cleanse.” Its black humor of intestinal demonry is much more benign as the core of this cleanse takes a more serious turn. As is the case with any self-help program, bear in mind that a large part of the burden is on you to take away what you wish from the movie. “The Cleanse” can only carry itself partway to purity and anticipates your mind will take care of the rest.
Review Score: 50