Stanleyville has a simple premise: five contestants compete in a contest to win a brand new habanero-orange compact SUV. Maria joins hoping for a chance at transcendence, but the other four really really want that car. How those players choose to interpret the games is where it all jumps off the rails in this wild dark psychological comedy.
The opening depicts a bleak and sterile world, though not quite ugly; quiet with crisp greys, beiges, and whites. We see our main character Maria at work, where she is drawn to the window and watches a hawk flying. For a moment her face is hopeful, joyous… then the hawk smashes into the window with a sickening thud. This is the movie you are in for. Director Maxwell McCabe-Lokos in his first feature length film has brought to life something akin to a tame Jean-Pierre Jeunet meets a nightmarish Wes Andreson, but thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end.
The contests are led by a man that calls himself Homunculus, who could be a childish and robotic version of Bill Nighy. At all times he genuinely seems to be winging it, with loosey-goosey rules and often letting the contestants interpret the qualifiers for winning. As dire as things get, this framework for the narrative lends a cartoonish and comedic tone to the events. When he first introduces the players he tells them “There will be around 10 games,” drawing a complaint from a player who says he thought there were 8. Homunculus looks at him and says, “Sure, 8.” With Squid Games likely fresh on many of our minds this is such a ridiculous deviation that it feels comically farcical. As the games go on they do begin to take a darker tone with dire consequences, but Homunculus maintains his haphazardous hosting of events.
Macabre and whimsy are perfectly balanced in Stanleyville, with the visuals and all aspects of production working hard to do so. Rich pastels fill a life diorama-adjacent setting, and the space looks more like a church rectory or community center than the abandoned warehouse or elaborate playing fields you would imagine, thus presenting a juxtaposition between the setting and the events taking place. The music is wonderfully suited to the harebrained antics of the characters, but still adds an edge of tension.
One of the funnier details I noticed was that the film contained title cards after each game was announced, however they are just as haphazard as Homunculus’ presentation in that the film doesn’t present one until the second game, and often seemingly forgets them until the game has already started. It’s clear that it’s intentional, introducing an element of camp to drive home how silly the how premise of the game is. All these pieces together feel very surreal without requiring much in the way of of actual surreal visuals, besides a prop or two.
The main character Maria is heartbreakingly sincere and gentle, having joined for existential reasons and believing she was personally selected out of thousands of others. She maintains this ethereal presence throughout the film, and introduces some of the more surreal moments of the film with her own interpretations of the contests. Maria is played by Susanne Wuest of Goodnight Mommy (2014) fame. Her touches to the character are subtle but effective, and Maria is enjoyable to watch.
The five participants are mostly simple and realistic to begin with but grow into borderline caricatures because of their reactions to the situation. Things escalate so quickly in these bizarre contests that it’s absurd. It would make sense if loads of money were on the line, or even their lives, but it is just a car and they are able to leave without consequences at any time. Yet, with the mildest amount of pressure though the other characters go from 0-100, staying within their character but becoming more and more manic. They appear like children, poorly directed, playacting Macbeth. It’s genuinely funny and wildly unpredictable.
It would almost feel like satire on the death games genre if it weren’t for the film playing it straight. There are hints of weapons and violence sprinkled throughout the beginning of Stanleyville, but towards the last half of the film they are realized. However there is always with a mirthful wink at the audience as it is apparent that the situation never merits such extreme behavior, especially just for a car– even if it is habenero orange!
The ending is absolutely stellar, driving home the tone of the entire movie perfectly while bringing the story full circle. Stanleyville is an incredibly fun movie that McCabe-Lokos has masterfully executed to produced a completely unique work of art.
We Watched Stanleyville as Part of the 2021 Nightstream Line-up