If a dead ringer for Sparks brother Ron Mael walked up to you at a shopping mall while you were sitting in a massage chair and contemplating the sad inertia of your existence and, with great excitement, announced that you had been chosen from among hundreds of millions of people to participate in a unique competition designed to “probe the very essence of mind-body articulation” — well, you’d probably be willing to entertain his sales pitch. Maria (“Goodnight Mommy” star Susanne Wuest) hangs on every word, as if she’s been waiting to hear them for her entire adult life.
Yes, “Squid Game” essentially started the same way, but the 40-something woman at the heart of Maxwell McCabe-Lokos’ “Stanleyville” doesn’t seem like she’s up to speed on the latest Netflix shows. She was born into one of those deadpan cities that filmmakers always use to satirize the absurdity of zombie capitalism; the kind of retro-modern purgatory where the pronounced absence of digital technology is meant to articulate its dehumanizing effect, and self-understanding has become so elusive that people can see everything except their own reflection.
In the first scene of this stilted and bizarrely affecting comedy, Maria walks out on her job after a hawk flies into her office window at full speed. In the third scene, she agrees to participate in a competition that promises her “authentic personal transcendence through the ferocity of true primal conflict.” Also, the possibility of winning a habanero-orange compact SUV.
The rules of the game are unclear, and only become more so once Maria is locked in a cheap pavilion with four other contestants who are just as eager to win something as she is. In fact, it often seems as if the trembling pencil of a man who recruited them is making things up as he goes along. And who cares if he is? Specifics are only so important to the sort of person who might follow a hilariously sinister figure named “Homunculus” into a locked room just because he offered them a chance to “discover the true you that cowers inside the you you” and maybe drive away in a certain vehicle.
All the same, a curious sense of order soon begins to emerge from the chaos that McCabe-Lokos arranges for his (very broad) characters. If “Stanleyville” initially assumes the posture of an Off-Off-Broadway adaptation of “Dogtooth” — one happy to revel in half-baked ideas and hand-me-down humor — its commitment to entropy randomness gradually coheres into an identity of its own.
What any of this diet Stanford Prison Experiment nonsense has to do with 19th-century Welsh-American explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley GCB — a small photo of whom watches over the room where roughly 90 percent of “Stanleyville” takes place — is left open for debate in a film that takes great pleasure in never explaining itself. The central tension of Rob Benvie and McCabe-Lokos’ script isn’t between the contestants so much as it’s between randomness and meaning.
How many games are there? Homunculus says 10, but when someone points out that his scoreboard only has eight slots, the host shrugs, “Sure, eight.” The most sinister aspect of Julian Richings’ deliciously weird performance is Homunculus’ seeming disinterest in the life-or-death event he’s organized for his recruits, the character coming and going like a middle manager in Hell. Was Maria actually selected to play from a pool of millions, or did she just happen to be in the wrong place at the right time? As Homunculus tells her at the mall: “Research shows that every moment in your life has led to this moment.” It’s hard to argue with that logic.
Homunculus’ ambivalence sets the tone for a film that often feels as slapdash as the competition — amateurishly at first, and then with increasingly ominous purpose. The severe formalism of the opening scenes gives way to the kind of banal tableaux found in bad comedies that overestimate their own strangeness, and the big caricatures who populate “Stanleyville” initially seem to suggest that McCabe-Lokos’ film is one of them.
Most of Maria’s fellow players have “funny” names and one-note personalities that belie the true depths of their desperation; a gambit typical of a movie that would rather gradually unbalance viewers than win them over with a few quick laughs, even if their attention flags along the way. They include failed actor Manny Jumpcannon (Adam Brown), bodybuilder/pyramid scheme victim Bofill Pancreas (George Tchortov), insecure daddy’s boy Andrew Frisbee Jr. (Kieran Culkin look-alike Christian Serritiello), and the ruthless Felicie Arkady (Cara Ricketts), who’s probably never been as lucky as her parents hoped that she would be.
Each of these people is grating from the jump, and yet their schtickiness — all the more pronounced when contrasted against the withholding Maria — makes it that much easier for them to surprise us, and maybe also themselves. For better or worse, it’s amazing what these characters are capable of when put into direct competition with each other. They can write intricate national anthems for fake countries, hold their breath for way too long, or disfigure someone without thinking twice. At one point, the contestants are given 13 hours to configure a communication device of some kind, and Maria somehow wires a seashell to make contact with a malevolent demon named Xiphosura.
Is she getting closer to her true self, or is making contact with dark forces not part of her personal growth? Only the film’s arrestingly composed final shot offers a concrete answer, and even that well-earned solution comes off as little more than a shrug. Better ambivalent than dishonest, I suppose. As Sir Stanley once said: “Granted that I know little of my real self, still, I am the best evidence for myself.”
The big joke in “Stanleyville” is that people will do the most ridiculous things to themselves and each other in order to feel a sense of purpose, but the punchline is that none of them can see the more obvious solution that’s staring them in the face: There are no winners in a competition for a habanero-orange car, only escapees.
Oscilloscope Laboratories will release “Stanleyville” in theaters on Friday, April 22.