Film Review – Stanleyville
The game is simple. Five contestants enter a room. There’s a kitchen, a dinner table with chairs, a couch, TV, a storage closet, and a few bedrooms. On one wall is a scoreboard tallying each player’s progress. On another wall is a portrait of 19th century Welsh explorer, Sir Henry Morton Stanley. The group participates in a series of eight events, each testing their mettle, physical fortitude, and wits. Some events last only a minute, others last an entire day. At the end of the contest, the person who has won the most events will be declared the winner. The grand prize: a habanero-orange compact sports utility vehicle, or SUV. At first, the game appears clear-cut. However, things quickly become bizarre, even deadly.
Maxwell McCabe-Lokos’ feature length directorial debut, Stanleyville (2021) is a strange and wacky viewing experience. The writing (McCabe-Lokos, Rob Benvie) paints the outside world as a realistic place, but once we enter the “game room,” all sense of realism disintegrates. What’s left are a group of individuals whose identities become linked to that SUV. As the game moves forward, the events turn twisted – even deranged. Mild curiosity descends into desperation, as the players’ willingness to hurt each other (and themselves) amplifies. That must be one fancy SUV. Many will compare this to other deadly game scenarios, such as Squid Game (2021), Cheap Thrills (2013), or Battle Royale (2000). McCabe-Lokos takes a more inexplicable approach than those mentioned. This is a competition taking place in a dream world.
Maria’s (Susanne Wuest) entire existence is stuck on pause. One day while working at her desk job, she looks up and witnesses a bird smack against her office window. This occurrence changes Maria’s entire outlook. She walks out on her husband and daughter, tosses her possessions in the trash, and wanders aimlessly. It isn’t until she meets a stranger named Homunculus (Julian Richings) that Maria gets introduced to the game. Feeling a renewed sense of purpose, Maria accepts the challenge. Once in the game room, she meets the other contestants: rich snob Andrew (Christian Serritiello), actor Manny (Adam Brown), supplement spokesman Bofill (George Tchortov), and cynical Felicie (Cara Ricketts). They all come from different walks of life yet have decided to compete. Were they chosen at random? Were they chosen for a specific reason?
Part of what makes the game so bizarre is how ramshackle the entire production feels. As host, Homunculus is ill prepared to run the show. He stumbles over his words, forgets to describe the rules, doesn’t remember how many events there are, etc. Events are seemingly made up on the spot. Some are so simple that they could barely pass for a children’s game, like seeing how many balloons a person can blow to the point of popping within a minute. Others are more complicated, such as writing and performing a song. Some are just plain loony. At one point the group is tasked to gather whatever items are present and build a fully functional communications device. Each step gets more extreme (and violent), testing how far the players can push their limits.
So, what is the point? The writing and direction does not offer any explicit answers. McCabe-Lokos and the rest of his team do an admirable job of sticking within the scope of the narrative. They do not make things easy for the audience. The ambiguity will frustrate those wanting closure by the time the credits roll, but they will not receive it. Despite the mayhem that eventually ensues, the tone remains at a darkly comedic level. Cabot McNenly’s cinematography captures the room in naturalistic fashion, which heightens the peculiar nature of the game. Because everything looks tangible and the cast performs without pretension or exaggeration, the off-kilter sensation is intensified. The visuals never drop into a kaleidoscopic light show and the editing (Duff Smith, Graham Tucker) never hints at any larger conspiracy. It’s as if these everyday people were dropped into the rabbit hole and are shifting their personas to match the drapes.
We all need a reason to get up in the morning. Whether it’s working to earn enough money to buy a car, to serve in the military, or to spend time with family – everyone has a right to their own sense of fulfillment. Maybe that’s what Stanleyville is getting at. Although a habanero-orange compact SUV might seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, it’s what gives the contestants a purpose, a reason to keep going. It’s as though the competition itself holds more value than the prize. Felicie proclaims that she will do whatever it takes to win. Does she really desire the SUV or is the act of winning what drives her? In the middle of it all is Maria, who exists both as a player and an observer. She sees the way things are collapsing around her, and how everyone loses control as they approach the finale. Where the group could have made bigger gains by working together, they slowly come apart. If we were to see this from a macro perspective, Maria could represent the one shining beacon of humanity in a society unraveling at the seams.
The more I think about Stanleyville, the more I like it. At first, the abstract design held me at a distance. My assumption is that others will have a similar reaction. Yet I kept rewinding it in my head, sifting through the fog to find an interpretation that fit. The film requires active contribution from the audience. We become the sixth player. Like everyone else, we get stuck in that room trying to figure out what the hell is going on.