How far would you go to win a sweet, habanero-orange compact SUV? That’s the central conceit of Stanleyville, the frequently and often self-consciously bizarre but undeniably charming feature debut of Canadian writer-director Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, which surrounds a mysterious game with increasingly high stakes, the aim of which is to win the aforementioned vehicle. Although it might seem like a long shot, for disaffected mother Maria (Goodnight Mommy star Susanne Wuest), the contest comes at quite literally the right time. A strange man approaches her in a lonely shopping mall and wonders if she would like to achieve “authentic personal transcendence.”
Maria is introduced staring sadly out a window at an unfulfilling office job. At home, the situation is even direr, with her uncaring husband sitting around watching Lord of the Flies — an early indication of what’s to come, for sure — while Maria’s obnoxious teenage daughter gives her guff for even looking at her. It’s unsurprising, then, when the protagonist abandons the home and dumps the contents of her handbag in a nearby trashcan. She’s the perfect candidate for Homunculus (a game Julian Richings), whose name alone should alert Maria to the fact that all is not what it seems. Soon, the game is afoot and it’s too late to back out.
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The title of Stanleyville is never explained, nor are the origins of the game itself or Homunculus’ role in it. Each of the five competitors — gifted enjoyably silly names, including Bofill Pancreas and Andrew Frisbee, Jr. — is super annoying in their own way, particularly wannabe influencer Manny Jumpcannon (Adam Brown). This is presumably by design, since the feats of strength to which they’re subjected, although initially tame and low risk, grow increasingly difficult and even life-threatening as the competition drags on. The setting in which much of the action takes place is neither photogenic nor inviting, which adds to the weirdness of the situation, since it’s unlikely anybody would choose to stay there unless they were truly desperate.
There’s a magical, glowing conch shell with a curious connection to the outside world, a protein shake poisoning and even a death by self-inflicted asphyxiation. Maria is the only decent person in the bunch, and her motivation for taking part in the scheme remains curiously opaque, even as competitors try to force her to be more cutthroat. Stanleyville is less interested in presenting a horror movie style scenario in which horrible characters get picked off in suitably horrific ways than it is in dissecting what makes human beings tick, and why we choose to remain in bad situations or risk everything for a payoff that may or may not ever come. Much like life itself, nothing makes sense, and the rules don’t seem fair or even logical.
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Wuest is reliably brilliant as the put-upon Maria, but she’s completely upstaged by a phenomenal Richings, whose droll delivery is a delight. From calling everybody “guys” — including deadpanning “this guy looks dead” at one point — to creakily ascending the single stair up to the platform on which he delivers each new task, the actor is clearly having a blast. The classically trained Richings has been gifted several challenging roles in his twilight years, most recently in the underrated indie horror movies Anything for Jackson and Vicious Fun, which is wonderful to see. He takes to playing Homunculus, who in less capable hands could be a one-note cypher with aplomb. Every second Richings is onscreen, Stanleyville sparks to life, despite the drab setting.
In fact, the film that Stanleyville most closely resembles is Would You Rather, in which the terrific Jeffrey Combs (of Re-Animator fame) plays a similar role to the one inhabited by Richings in McCabe-Lokos’ 2021 film. The difference is Would You Rather’s streak of nastiness, which makes it clear that anybody could fall at any moment. The stakes are murkier in Stanleyville, and when characters do perish, there isn’t much fallout, creating a queasy sense of emotional detachment.
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There are elements to Stanleyville that are reasonably charming, however. Joseph Shabason’s score, comprised mostly of growls and groans, is a burst of disconcerting noise in the quieter moments, and the performances are committed, if uneven. The problem is that McCabe-Lokos and co-writer Rob Benvie show no real desire to answer any of the questions they raise, and when it comes to tying everything together in the final act, they fumble the ball. There’s certainly fun to be had along the way, but one’s mileage will vary based on the journeys of the grating characters, especially once it becomes clear that there’s no real reward for sticking with them. Still, an ambitious failure is often more interesting than a safe success, and what Stanleyville lacks in narrative propulsion it makes up for with sheer audacity. It’s worth the trip, as long as the destination doesn’t matter too much.
Oscilloscope Laboratories released Stanleyville on April 22, 2022.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.