What would happen if you barfed out your inner demons, and they came to life? Good news! The Cleanse will answer that very strange question for you.
Directed by Bobby Miller
The Cleanse is a weird-ass movie. It feels like a fever dream of somebody coming out of a particularly difficult rehab session. Part dark fantasy, part amateur psychology experiment, this curiosity ends with many unanswered questions. And though it stars some easily recognizable Hollywood actors like Johnny Galecki, Angelica Huston, and Oliver Platt, it waves its quirky indie ethos like a flag.
Galecki plays Paul Berger, a sad sack loner who has failed at most things in his life. The prospect of attending the Roberts Institute’s program “Let’s Get Pure” connects with Paul. The program is a free but experimental retreat in which attendees can rid themselves of the toxic elements in their lives. It sounds too good to be true, but it’s free, and well… Paul could use a reset button for his life.
He arrives in an idyllic and remote wilderness camp with three other participants: the failed actress Maggie (Annie Friel) and a young couple, Laurie (Diana Bang) and her jerk boyfriend Eric (Kyle Gallner). An eccentric semi-guru Lily (Angelica Huston) introduces herself to the campers and immediately sets them onto a scrubbing of their souls. Lily urges the campers to scream and let out their frustrations. Most importantly, they are to consume the specifically concocted (and disgusting) elixirs in a “cleansing” kit.
Paul reluctantly quaffs his jars of nastiness and eventually vomits the contents into the sink. Later on, the barf proved tenacious as it backed the sink up completely. Paul attempts to fix the sink, and out of the pipes flops a growing embryonic organism. This is the result of Paul purging his demons, reconstituting back into a critter.
I’m sure the producers would have loved to have claimed the title “The Purge,” but, as we all know, that title has been claimed. When The Cleanse was on the horror festival circuit, it bore the name The Master Cleanse, so if that title rings a bell… same thing.
Eventually, the little homunculi grow up to be rather charming beasties. Paul’s critter looks like a cross between Yoda, and my French Bulldog, Mookie. So, yeah, I am enamored with the early stages of the little beastie.
So, the barfed-up little critters are part baby, part pet, and part all of the pent-up neuroses and insecurities that are dragging the souls of these campers down. And yet, they are adorable… for a while. We get a suggestion of what is to come if you can’t deal with your inner demons in the very destructive, large, and angry form connected to longtime resident Fredericks (Kevin J. O’Connor), who is still trying to get through his cleansing. Fredericks’ countenance suggests he is doomed to fail, and his cleansing monster will consume him. But who knows? All of the baby critters look harmless enough, right?
Eventually, the guru himself, Ken Roberts (Oliver Platt) comes to the camp to guide the attendees through the final stages of their recovery. But, by confronting and conquering their fears and flaws, they will have to deal with what they have birthed/barfed up. Paul and Maggie are not emotionally ready to deal with their issues, but devastating events at the camp eventually call for some real gut checks, and tough decisions.
The movie ends before you know it. Sometimes, that may be a good thing, but in this case, a lot is left on the table. The third act seems rushed. I would have liked the film to continue a bit more to find out whether the consequences of the climax amounted to anything. It was harrowing and traumatic, but in the end… for what?
For an actor so associated with broad TV humor from The Big Bang Theory, Galecki really underplays his role here. The humor is very dry and honestly doesn’t hit the mark all that often. The film can be amusing, and it is very odd. It would be comfortable sitting on the same proverbial shelf as Dave Made a Maze and Are We Not Cats? By comparison, I find Dave Made a Maze much more amusing, but they all shoot for that same quirky independent, dark comedy vibe with fantastical elements.
I wonder if the writer/director Miller is channeling any personal rehab experiences he may have had. He saves much of the horror until the movie’s end, and it’s really horror/tragedy. I can’t help but think there is some statement about the futility of it all. But again, since it ends so abruptly, it’s difficult to glean what Miller is trying to say easily. This is curious since this is his first feature film. Most first-time feature directors will spill their guts out onto the screen, though I suppose he has the cast do that for him. (Rimshot!)
The Cleanse is rated R, though I suspect that by toning down the language a bit, this film could be PG-13. There are moments of grotesqueness and tragic cruelty that come into play as well, but the horror isn’t pervasive. The Cleanse is available for rent, streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, and Vudu.