Before I officially begin my review of "The Dungeon Masters," a Kevin McAlester documentary based in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and L.A.R.P. (Live Action Role Playing) currently screening at the 2009 Indianapolis International Film Festival, I should offer you a warning.
Do NOT enter "Dungeon Masters" in a search engine and expect to find McAlester's film.
I tried. Several times.
All I can say is that the websites I did uncover were definitely not providing anything related to McAlester's film, though "role playing" certainly did enter the picture more than once.
But, I digress. Back to McAlester's film.
"The Dungeon Masters" can best be described as an outsider's look at the world of RPG's (Role-Playing Games), a world that can seem simultaneously odd, strange, immature, escapist and just plain bizarre to the uninitiated. At times in "The Dungeon Masters," it appears that this is how McAlester himself views the world as a member of the non-playing, uninitiated world.
While parts of "The Dungeon Masters" is filmed throughout the country, the film itself has as its bookends Indianapolis's annual "GenCon" convention, a Sci-Fi, RPG and gamer's delight during which those who venture through downtown Indianapolis will be subjected to a garden variety of costumed characters from a variety of sources including "Lord of the Rings," "Star Wars," "Star Trek" and a number of others.
McAlester centers "The Dungeon Masters" on three central individuals, all of whom serve as "Dungeon Masters," those who essentially serve as the facilitators of their respective games.
Elizabeth is a Drow Princess, a cosplayer who dresses up in the role of a dark elf and whose life seems to evolve around the playing of D&D and World of Warcraft. We learn about Elizabeth that she has a history of abusive relationships and relationships with men who connect with her primarily as a young woman who is a great "Dungeon Master" and her knowledge of all things seemingly related to geek culture. Elizabeth longs for a relationship with someone who accepts her for who she is, though "The Dungeon Masters" never really manages to find out who that is since all we ever really find out about her is her commitment to being a Dungeon Master and her history with men.
Then, there's Richard. At various points, we learn about Richard that he is an Army Reservist, a nudist and a convert to Judaism. We learn that he ended a 15-year marriage and stepchildren with nary a moment's notice and similarly abandoned a years-long D&D game with several friends after he grew weary of their antics and lured them all into being killed in the same night. Yet, Richard is also the most vibrant and interesting character in "The Dungeon Masters" and appears to truly enjoy the drama of being a Dungeon Master. Of the three central characters, Richard appears to be the most stable with a reasonably happy second marriage with a woman who does not game and he lives in what appears to be a financially stable situation.
The same is not true for Scott, who at various times resembled Philip Seymour Hoffman in any of his unaccomplished slacker roles. Scott is an under-employed apartment building manager whose wife seems to do most of the wife while he attempts to write the great American novel and develops an idea for a cable access show. He and his wife don't seem happy, even remotely, and several scenes in the film are filled with an underlying tension as they toss subtle jabs back and forth.
The film is divided into five "acts," though this division feels arbitrary and perhaps intended only to accentuate the sense of "gaming" and role-playing rather than having any true purpose for the film. Even more troubling for this critic, an admitted non-gamer, is that nothing in "The Dungeon Masters" really took me inside the world. While the film does an adequate job of examining the lives of these three central characters, it fails to ever address the game itself and why these three individuals are so devoted to it.
Is it an escape?
Is it not fitting into a real world, an issue addressed more than once in the film?
If we are to trust McAlester's film, it would seem that all three of these individuals are under-achieving, socially awkward misfits who escape into their RPG worlds because it may very well be the only place they can truly belong.
Yet, I get the weirdest feeling this is not actually the case. In "real life," the three seem reasonably well-adjusted, intelligent and, dare I say it, fairly normal.
Did these things simply not make the final cut?
The other difficulty in watching "The Dungeon Masters" existed in its editing, an unnerving and unnecessary blend of slow fading shots and camera shots that lingered for several seconds after the final words were spoken. It's as if, perhaps, we are being led to believe that the words having just been spoken needed time to enter our psyche' and yet this was hardly ever the case. Time and again, a character would speak and we would be left to watch their facial expression for a few seconds after their final word. With nothing in the film seeming particularly powerful or emotionally resonant, this cinematic device felt unnecessary and certainly over-utilized.
"The Dungeon Masters" currently is continuing on the film festival circuits with other recent appearances including the Toronto and Mar Del Plata Film Festivals.
It should also be noted that D&D insiders seemingly enjoyed the viewing experience moreso than did I, as evidenced by their chuckles of familiarity and post-screening comments.
Yet, it seems odd that in creating a film that is supposed to get inside the world of being a D&D Dungeon Master, the director would select three individuals who, in the end, are painted in a fairly negative light that only serves to invalidate this central aspect of their lives. With no real focus on the game and a fairly jaded treatments of its central characters, "The Dungeon Masters" feels like it doesn't accomplish what it set out to do.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic