"Stanleyville" a strange bird with a deadpan, off-kilter vibe

Stanleyville (2022)

Maxwell McCabe-Lokos’ feature debut “Stanleyville” is a strange bird. The vibe is singular if somewhat in step with the works of Yorgos Lanthimos and Quentin Dupieux if those filmmakers made their own version of “Would You Rather” or “Escape Room.” Set during a sweepstakes competition between five strangers, it’s much more of a deadpan black comedy full of absurdist details. Like films by those directors, “Stanleyville” will firmly not be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you like this type of tea, it never wavers from its bizarro, off-kilter sensibility.

Dissatisfied office drone Maria (Susanne Wuest, the mommy from “Goodnight Mommy”) has suddenly had it. She walks away from her office job, her lazy husband, and her inane daughter. Throwing away everything in her purse (including her cash and cell phone), Maria sits at the mall, until a strange, bookbag-wearing man named Homunculus (Julian Richings) approaches her. He tells Maria that she’s been selected to participate in a contest, “a unique competition to probe the very essence of body-mind articulation,” with the prize being “a brand-new Habanero orange compact sports utility vehicle.” Once Maria gets to a pavilion, she’s joined by four other competitors: a protein-chugging but amiable meathead (George Tchortov); an aspiring “star” (Adam Brown) who’s on the spectrum and has only one lung; a rich, pompous prick (Christian Serritiello, not Kieran Culkin) whose father’s reputation gets to his head; and a cutthroat, stoned-faced loner (Cara Ricketts) who’s really there for the SUV prize. 

“Stanleyville” intrigues within meeting these very idiosyncratic characters and putting them through eight rounds of this nonsensical game. Blowing up as many balloons in one minute is the most innocuous, until the contestants are asked to be resourceful and invent a telecommunications device with found materials or, you know, cut off someone else’s ear lobe. It’s like the oddest, most compressed season of “Big Brother” without any showmances, and one of them will do anything to eliminate the competition (the small storage room is great for putting dead bodies).

As deftly played by Susanne Wuest with a range of iciness, humanity, and otherworldliness, Maria begins and ends as a different person. When we first meet Maria, she's tightly wound, with her hair in a bun, and full of simmering rage. Once she's in the thick of the contest, Maria does loosen up toward her path of spiritual enlightenment; she truly believe she was chosen for a greater purpose, while everyone else thinks she’s a quack. Homunculus, himself, is an odd duck, and who better to play him than genre veteran Julian Richings? Entering the pavilion each day with a backpack like it’s his first day of elementary school, this host barely knows his own rules, or is he doing someone else’s bidding? What is even happening? If you want answers to every question, don’t hold your breath.

What writer-director Maxwell McCabe-Lokos and co-writer Rob Benvie want to say here is hard to pin down. Because the puzzlebox mystery doesn't matter as much, we can gather that this is a cheekily detached social satire about how selfish and competitive people get when thinking they deserve more. The film presumably gets its inscrutable title from 19th-century Welsh-American explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley GCB, whose portrait can be found hanging on the wall in the pavilion room. It is, perhaps, just another detail that’s weird for weird’s sake. Maybe none of “Stanleyville” needs to make any rational sense when its weirdness is at least consistent and involving. In a playfully nihilistic shaggy-dog story with no winners, the punchline is that anything resembling an escape is actually just the end.

Grade: B -

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Stanleyville” (88 min.) in select theaters on April 22nd.