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Stanleyville

"My name is Homunculus," the man (Julian Richings) announces in a formal tone, clipping his consonants. Homunculus' face looks like a medieval woodcut showing scenes of people burning at the stake. His manner is off-putting. He approaches Maria (Susanne Wuest) at a fluorescent-lit, eerily empty shopping mall and informs her she has been selected for a contest where she can experience "authentic personal transcendence" and discover "the very essence of mind-body articulation." It speaks to the overall tone of "Stanleyville" that Maria doesn't say "I understand what all those words mean individually but I have no idea what they mean when put together like that." Instead, the fact that she has been "selected" out of apparently thousands and/or millions fills her with awe, and a sense of purpose sorely lacking in her life. Despite knowing little to nothing about what the contest entails, she agrees to participate.

The opening sequences of Maxwell McCabe-Lokos' "Stanleyville" are flat-affect in tone, presenting a vision of an emotionally sterile modern world, where people rarely look up from their various screens, and when they do look up they are irritated at the interruption. After a hawk flies into the plate glass window of her office, something snaps in Maria. She has a husband and teenage daughter, but she walks away from them with no fanfare, dumping her purse into the trash. Homunculus appears shortly thereafter. The contest-winner will receive an orange SUV, which holds no appeal for Maria, but she shows up at the appointed place at the appointed time for the mysterious contest.

It takes place in what seems to be a recreational center: a big room with cement-block walls, the corners tricked out with beds or couches or tables, delineating separate "rooms." There are four other participants, all of whom show up with broadly-drawn characters and even broader names: Felicie Arkady (Cara Ricketts), Andrew Frisbee, Jr. (Christian Serritiello), Bofill Pancreas (George Tchortov) and Manny Jumpcannon (Adam Brown). Andrew Frisbee is a finance guy with daddy issues, correcting anyone who leaves the "Jr." off his name. Bofill is a friendly muscle-bound guy involved in a protein-powder pyramid scheme. Manny is a wannabe actor who dresses like Keith Richards (or Jack Sparrow), and Felicie is no-nonsense and practical: she's in it for the orange SUV. Nothing will stop her from getting that car. Maria, washed-out, serious, intense, is the outsider in this band of misfits.

"Stanleyville" is part Stanford Prison Experiment and part MTV's "The Real World." It's part Milgram experiment and part "Squid Game." The names and characterizations, the unreality of it all, clue us in to the satirical nature of the story. The contest is made up of eight different timed "challenges," each one presented by Homunculus in language both overly articulated and totally incomprehensible. Some challenges last a minute. Some last 20 hours. One challenge involves each of them writing a national anthem "for the world." One involves inventing a form of telecommunication. As the contest progresses, the tension mounts and societal norms and niceties break down. Andrew and Felicie clash constantly. Manny can't get himself together. Bofill struggles to maintain his smiley personality. These four bond in one way: they all look at Maria with suspicion.

The title is an enigma, creating an uneasy miasma over the whole proceedings. On the wall hangs a sepia-toned photograph of Victorian-era explorer Henry Morton Stanley (of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" fame), and Maria is drawn to it, staring at Stanley like she's searching for a message. On a nearby stand sits a mannequin head wearing a pith helmet. The helmet comes into play in one of the challenges. Henry Morton Stanley was an integral part of the Belgian colonization of the Congo, and in 1883 he founded a small trading post, which eventually morphed into a city called Stanleyville in his honor (the city was re-named Kisangani). Stanley's posthumous reputation is extremely controversial and still debated, but none of that comes into "Stanleyville"'s script, co-written by McCabe-Lokos and Rob Benvie. So what is really going on here? There are intriguing possibilities—mental experiments—but they are more like avenues of speculation rather than anything clearly laid out. "Stanleyville" withholds more than it reveals.

As the five contestants descend into anarchy, Homunculus occasionally returns to present them their next challenge. At times, he seems to be just making it all up. Does he even know what he's talking about? Richings is a busy character actor, his looks so distinct he can fit in in any era, and in any context, supernatural or realistic. He is very "Other." "Supernatural" fans will remember his performance as "Death" over a number of seasons, where he strolled through the chaos, at times mild-mannered and at times extremely frightening. Once you see his face you don't forget it. Here, he burbles his corporatized-New-Age speak like he's making it up on the fly, and is completely unperturbed by the chaos unfolding before him.

What is this contest? How were these people selected? What does any of it have to do with anything? Who is Homunculus? "Stanleyville" doesn't say. This can be frustrating, almost like the script is playing cat-and-mouse with us, and sometimes the broad characters are a little predictable. The unraveling of each personality moves like clockwork. The real point is how we are kidding ourselves if we think "society" is something solid. Underneath roils total chaos, each person for themselves. Even in a made-up situation like the Stanford Prison Experiment, even when the prize is a measly orange SUV (and not, say, a million dollars), monsters can be born. No one is immune.

Now playing in theaters.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Stanleyville movie poster

Stanleyville (2022)

Rated NR

88 minutes

Cast

Susanne Wuest as Maria Barbizan

Cara Ricketts as Felicie Arkady

Christian Serritiello as Andrew Frisbee, Jr.

George Tchortov as Bofill Pancreas

Adam Brown as Manny Jumpcannon

Julian Richings as Homunculus

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Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

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