Stanleyville movie review & film summary (2022)

The title is an enigma, creating an uneasy miasma over the whole proceedings. On the wall hangs a sepia-toned photograph of Victorian-era explorer Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame), and Maria is drawn to it, staring at Stanley like she’s searching for a message. On a nearby stand sits a mannequin head wearing a pith helmet. The helmet comes into play in one of the challenges. Henry Morton Stanley was an integral part of the Belgian colonization of the Congo, and in 1883 he founded a small trading post, which eventually morphed into a city called Stanleyville in his honor (the city was re-named Kisangani). Stanley’s posthumous reputation is extremely controversial and still debated, but none of that comes into “Stanleyville”‘s script, co-written by McCabe-Lokos and Rob Benvie. So what is really going on here? There are intriguing possibilities—mental experiments—but they are more like avenues of speculation rather than anything clearly laid out. “Stanleyville” withholds more than it reveals.

As the five contestants descend into anarchy, Homunculus occasionally returns to present them their next challenge. At times, he seems to be just making it all up. Does he even know what he’s talking about? Richings is a busy character actor, his looks so distinct he can fit in in any era, and in any context, supernatural or realistic. He is very “Other.” “Supernatural” fans will remember his performance as “Death” over a number of seasons, where he strolled through the chaos, at times mild-mannered and at times extremely frightening. Once you see his face you don’t forget it. Here, he burbles his corporatized-New-Age speak like he’s making it up on the fly, and is completely unperturbed by the chaos unfolding before him.

What is this contest? How were these people selected? What does any of it have to do with anything? Who is Homunculus? “Stanleyville” doesn’t say. This can be frustrating, almost like the script is playing cat-and-mouse with us, and sometimes the broad characters are a little predictable. The unraveling of each personality moves like clockwork. The real point is how we are kidding ourselves if we think “society” is something solid. Underneath roils total chaos, each person for themselves. Even in a made-up situation like the Stanford Prison Experiment, even when the prize is a measly orange SUV (and not, say, a million dollars), monsters can be born. No one is immune.

Now playing in theaters.

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