Maria (Susanne Wuest) is jolted awake by a hawk flying straight into the window of her corner office. Only she seems to notice while the rest of her drone-like coworkers type at their keyboards. Where some might have laughed out of shock or disregarded the event as one more example of man’s intellectual superiority over the animal kingdom, Maria sees aspiration. That bird cracked its skull because it was free. It believed itself able to fly anywhere that appeared open and was only thwarted by an anomaly rather than a rule. She bangs her head against the proverbial wall of complacent monotony because she’s accepted her place within a society of exploitation and oppression. Is it better to live without living? Or to die having lived?
Director Maxwell McCabe-Lokos and co-writer Rob Benvie know this single epiphany isn’t quite enough to alter the course of a life, though. Maybe Maria grabs her jacket and leaves work early to contemplate her newfound discovery of capitalism’s invisible chains, but there’s still home. Except when “home” is a lazy husband wasting time on his laptop and asking, without looking up, whether she brought the groceries he needed. Or an ungrateful daughter who accuses her of unwarranted judgment for merely looking upon her injured forehead with concern. If this were my life, I might walk out the front door for a break too. Maria goes a few steps further by emptying the contents of her purse and wallet into a trashcan. She’s ready to soar, windowpanes be damned.
This is just the prologue to her forthcoming adventures in Stanleyville. The film’s title feels like a place but is really a state of mind cultivated by an illogical contest held in a facility adorned by a portrait of a man whose surname is Stanley. Is he behind this endeavor? Maybe. Is he an omniscient being? If Homunculus (Julian Richings) is taken at face value, he might be. How else would he have known to find Maria slumped in a mall massage chair before mentioning her cleansing of the garbage of their life? It’s as though fate has been watching her this whole time, praying she might finally break loose from her prison and be reborn. Homunculus is her guide. The contest he’s judging is the road.
Or perhaps it’s just a gag. I’m not exactly sure; the bulk of McCabe-Lokos’ film feels more interested in its absurdity than the central notion that Maria is being “saved.” We knew something wasn’t right with Homunculus from the start—his words seemed confined to the carefully prepared statements and facts he was given by employers—but watching him officiate the eight challenges confronting his contestants is a whole other level. He appears unprepared, unqualified, uninterested. He talks of “fun” and “rules” but proceeds with the enthusiasm and focus of Maria’s husband. Each test is scored on the honor system. The topics and timeframes are arbitrary without sufficient context to make them otherwise. It all becomes a social experiment, seemingly sans purpose.
That’s kind of the point when everyone is in the room for different reasons. Maria wants transcendence—an answer to the question she didn’t know to ask until that hawk set her on a path to this unlikely, convoluted present. Andrew Frisbee, Jr. (Christian Serritiello) wants validation. Manny Jumpcannon (Adam Brown) wants a distraction. Bofill Pancreas (George Tchortov) wants recruitments for his protein-powder pyramid scheme (but really friends). And Felicie Arkady (Cara Ricketts) wants the car Homunculus promised the winner. Will any of them find what it is they seek? One could argue they all do—just not quite how they imagined. Because while they’re told to do “anything necessary for success,” what those words mean isn’t concrete. Is immoral ruthlessness necessary? A saintly patience? Both?
The act is more important than the destination. Where Felicie might cheat (and Andrew might cheat worse), Bofill wants everyone to have a good time without making things personal. Where Manny wants to create an alliance because he knows he has no chance of “winning” on his own, Maria hangs in the background to watch and witness that which she wants no part of herself. And let’s face it: Homunculus doesn’t care about them. He’s a servant, coming and going on cue to set the timer and mark the winners (regardless of whether they actually won). He’s as much a random prop as anything else in this space (musical instruments, cans of ketchup, a disassembled gun amongst many others). He’s a tool to manipulate or discard.
Homunculus told them all what they needed to get here, no more and no less. What they do while confined is up to them. It becomes a microcosm of their outside lives—giving them just enough to believe they have free will despite none being present at all. What should they believe then? What semantic-level games are being played above the game they’re told has commenced? Is it worth dying for? Is it worth escaping? All they must do is walk out the door to put it all behind them, but the word “disqualified” instills a sort of unwieldy fear none wants to confront. They’d rather lose than quit. They’d rather win than lose. And the notion of it being a game sees them ignoring consequences and humanity.
It’s a high concept structure built with a lo-fi aesthetic that’s populated by darkly comic performances lending a surreal dryness that captivates as the whole spirals out. Though I’m not sure if its parts add up to anything insofar as progressing Maria beyond her status at the start. She frees herself only to potentially free herself more. Maybe the filmmakers are alluding to the former as a flash-in-the-pan thing that will eventually see her returning to the doldrums and the latter as true independence. I don’t know. The experience is as much about the eye of the beholder for the audience as the game is for its contestants. You get back what you put in. I got entertainment. Maybe you’ll get more (or less).
Stanleyville opens in limited release on April 22.