If I were to describe a film as “a group of volunteers who are promised a rich prize if they willingly participate in multiple children’s games with deadly ferocity”, you likely expected that I’d be talking about Squid Game.
After all, Netflix’s killer Korean series took over the world earlier this year. While the concept is far from new (see Hunger Games or Battle Royale), something about Squid struck a chord with the world and helped it become a global phenomenon.
Even so, with that show firmly in the rearview window, here comes Stanleyville.
Stanleyville tells the story of Maria (Susanne Wuest), a frustrated woman who is at an emotional crossroads in her life. When she’s approached by a mysterious older gentleman (Julian Richings), he informs her that she’s been specifically chosen for a game that could win her a habanero-orange compact SUV. Bored with her office job and her complacent family life, she accepts the challenge, believing that she may learn something about herself in the process. When she arrives, she discovers that she’s one of 5 contestants who must participate in various games to determine who will win the keys to the vehicle. However, as the games begin to become more brutal in nature, Maria and her competitors must look deeply inside themselves to determine who they really are and what they want out of life.
Although comparisons will undoubtedly be made to the recent success of Netflix’s Squid Game, Stanleyvilledoes manage to stand on its own as unique. Although the six contestants may find themselves trapped in an various games of increasing madness, Stanleyville plays different mind tricks than its Korean counterpart. For example, whereas Squid Game relied heavily on taking another’s life, Stanleyville never quite makes though necessity. Instead, these games are designed to slowly strip away the emotional walls of its contestants to see to what lengths people will go to survive
In many ways, Stanleyville is surprisingly funny. Directed by Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, there’s a level of humour within this battle royale which is missing from Squid. Anchored by an entertaining performance by Julian Richings as the quirky host Homunculus, the film balances the more horrific moments with an edgy humour that keeps the film from completely devolving into darkness. While we know that the shadows within its characters will eventually emerge, Richings keeps things moving with hilarious punctuation. (After all, the host isn’t even entirely sure how many games they’re even supposed to play!)
Interestingly, with only five contestants, there is far less carnage than Netflix’s Squid. Though, having said this, the relationships that we develop with those characters means that that any violence becomes seemingly more brutal.
What really sets the film apart though is the fact that prize is not necessarily the point. Playing for the ridiculously low stakes of a compact vehicle, Stanleyville very much wants to touch on the nature of human evolution. As Homunculus claims, this is a journey which will invite them to ‘reach the highest plain of human existence’. However, in order to do so, the game will require them to reach into the deepest parts of themselves to see what lies beneath.
As the games evolve, so too must the players. Whereas the games began with simple motivation ranging from prizes to the thrill of competition, suddenly they are asking questions about the deepest parts of themselves. (It’s also worth noting that the conch shell seems like a reference to Lord of the Flies. But are they hearing a voice from beyond or merely telling themselves what they want to hear?) As they move further down the path to darkness, the game exposes their deepest frailties and weaknesses. Left to grapple with their inner demons, each player looks for answers as to what matters most. Was the lack of compassion towards one another they exhibited worth a mere car? In this world, evolution is necessary to survive… but, with where it leads, is it worth it? Somewhat ironically, the film itself isn’t entirely sure if it’s worth playing. To paraphrase a famed Scripture, the players soon must decide whether it’s worth gaining [a moderately-priced compact SUV] if it involves losing your soul.
Although the film often keeps its sense of humour, Stanleyville exposes the darkness of ambition and selfishness. As the winners begin to mount and the bodies begin to drop, the film wrestles with some highly philosophical questions about the nature of human existence that keep the film engaging. Though you could also be forgiven if, like the would-be contestants, you begin to doubt your decision to get into the game.
Stanleyville is now available in theatres.