Stanleyville (2021) Movie Explained: Ending & Themes Analysed
Stanleyville (2021) Movie Ending Explained & Themes Analysed: The gradual extinction of subjects in a film at the hands of a looming disaster is not a novel idea. Right from the 90s’ Spielbergesque survival adventures to the modern-day reality game-show dystopias, we have seen them all die one by one, till the most good-natured/audience-favored character(s) takes home the prize of (a deeply traumatized) life. With a growing interest in the psychological landscapes and social implications of such premises, themes such as mass obedience and totalitarianism, conscience against survival instincts, materialism, and self-aggrandizement, have been widely explored in these films. But I doubt if there has ever been a fatal Monty-hall-problem, which promises the winner not only a ‘brand-new habanero orange compact sports utility vehicle, international import’, but also ‘authentic personal transcendence’.
As oxymoronic as it might sound, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos’s 2021 film Stanleyville aspires to be a transcendental, satirical thriller. This debut feature presents a concoction of cross-cutting philosophies, often oscillating between Eastern and Western schools of thought. As the narrative treads the line between abstraction and madness throughout, the viewer is left with questions that arise due to the overt artistic ambition of the film. In this essay, I intend to bring together philosophical and psychological premises which might have influenced this strange setting, and in the process, lead to an interpretation of the ending.
Disclaimer: Unlike Maria, the film lead (Susanne Wuest), I would not like to start off by assuming spiritual superiority and trying to give you a sense of a greater purpose, but more on that later. That is to say, this detailed deconstruction might influence and limit your own experience of watching the film, so it would be good to have a first-hand opinion before coming back to read this. In other words, spoilers ahead.
STANLEYVILLE (2021) MOVIE PLOT SUMMARY, SYNOPSIS & PHILOSOPHICAL IMPLICATIONS:
PART 1: BODY, MIND, AND SOUL
The first scene opens to a strikingly white, probably futuristic, city. An equally pallid Maria stands at the window of an office building, watching a bird in flight. As soon as the primness of the scene and the ever-stunned, popping-out eyes of Maria begin to strike you as odd, the bird crashes right into the window pane and falls out of sight, which is only a prelude to the absurdity that the film intends to present. Though very little is spoken by Maria in this prologue (and also throughout the film), subsequent dialogues reveal that, to Maria, this bird was a sign. It indicated the tipping point of her meaningless existence. Her alienation is further depicted through her meager, often non-verbal, interactions with her co-workers, and her family, as she decides to rid herself of her material possessions and leave home.
A gaunt, ominous-looking man, called Homunculus (Julian Richings) meets Maria at a shopping arcade. He speaks as if he has internalized a thesaurus— Maria has been chosen for a ‘platinum level exclusive contest’ among millions of others. Frequently tossing around phrases like ‘mind-body articulation’, and ‘authentic personal transcendence’, he further tries to convince Maria by stating the ultimate prize, the ‘habanero orange’ sports car, quite superfluously. If I were Maria, I’d probably go back home. But the possibility of self-transcendence is her siren call. We are unsure of whether this is the same transcendentalism that Thoreau, Emerson, or Whitman talked about. But to Maria, this contest is a twenty-first-century spiritual fair. To her, this is all a part of her destiny to find meaning within herself, and a way to end her suffering.
We almost expect the other participants to be mystical lunatics as well, but their worldliness is quite contrasting. At first glance, Bofill Pancreas (George Tchortov) appears to be a compulsive bodybuilder, Andrew Frisbee Jr. (Christian Serritiello) gives himself away as a paranoid snob, Manny Jumpcannon (Adam Brown) is just too full of himself, and jazz and Felicie Arkady (Cara Ricketts) seems to be completely disinterested in anything but the prize. And that is about it. The characters hardly evolve throughout the course of the film. As they go through the subsequent events, they seem to be keen on obsessively clinging to their extreme natures. When it comes to Maria, her transformations (if any), are as abrupt as her metaphysical dialogues and her intimacy with the others. None of the characters feel like a real person, but rather, they seem to be representing a concept. Thus, at no point do we feel a connection with any of the characters. If out of this lot, we choose to stick with Maria, it would essentially be similar to choosing the lesser evil.
Round one involves blowing up balloons, as a test of the participants’ lung capacity. Unlike other survival game thrillers, which jolt into motion and work towards building tension from the very first round, this is more of a gradual ascent. And it is all the more disappointing to see that Homunculus does not even bother to keep count. He is like this highly learned ring-master who knows all about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and hands out phrases like ‘true mind-body self-actualization’ for motivation. Yet without much effort on his part, the general competitive spirit remains alive. The second task has to do more with mental capability and requires cognitive sequencing of materials found in boxes given out to each of them. Oddly enough, the participants come across a few curious objects in their boxes, which include a dismantled handgun, a dagger, and a conch shell.
By now, we are already buckled up for an impending disaster—a moment of shock— but the blitheness of the tasks churns us. Fortunately, the plot is allowed to develop as Homunculus announces that the players have to write a personal international anthem for the world and testify to their creative prowess, and leaves them for a few hours. In the absence of the foreman, the contestants interact freely among themselves. There is already a raging animosity between Frisbee Jr. and Arkady, both of whom have won one round each. The others mostly talk about their worldly goals and priorities, their idea of community, and of themselves.
Felicie tries to manipulate Manny into injuring himself and winning a round by asking for the grace point, but he doesn’t seem too convinced, although later his actions reveal otherwise. Maria appears to be distantly interested in all of it. While the others are prone to believe that they have been chosen randomly for participation, Maria keeps on advocating that there is a grander purpose, a pattern that they just need to identify. Her words and actions are incongruous, and she is often looked upon as a freakshow. The keenness in her gaze reminds us of Charlie (from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) trying to be a good kid amidst a rotten lot, who never had his eyes on the prize.
Why is the presence of Homunculus significant?
Interestingly, the word ‘Homunculus’ has both scientific as well as philosophical implications. Literally translating to ‘little man’, it is often used to refer to a little humanoid creature believed to be residing at the center of our being. This creature supposedly plays different roles in different hypotheses. In the context of cognitive science, as the theories propose, this homunculus reads brain algorithms and conveys them to the body, in the form of thoughts, feelings, or impulses, that incite action. Thus, he is the umpire enforcing rules, not of his own making, but ensuring that the game is played.
Apparently, Homunculus is here to fulfill a similar role, and the sobriquet is not merely a coincidence. In a more philosophical sense, the homunculus is synonymous with the immaterial part of the human body which is known as the soul. Transcendentalists refer to it as the characterizing element or that which creates the sense of ‘I’ in man—the ego, or the self. This self is responsible for the fragmentary nature of man’s existence and his worldly sufferings.
What is the meaning of Maria’s anthem for the world?
From the very beginning, Maria is fixated on a different prize. “Granted that I know little of my real self, still, I am the best evidence for myself.”—are words by the Welsh-American explorer Henry Morgan Stanley, which Maria reads from a painting in the hall, who also happens to lend his name to the title of the film. Soon before Homunculus reappears, Maria talks to Manny about the presence of a universal noise, and the physical reality being just a manifestation of the psychological. This idea has its genesis in ancient Hindu and Buddhist philosophies where the notion prevails that consciousness plays a role in shaping and altering the external reality that it is subjected to.
This is taken a step forward when it is revealed that Maria’s anthem for the world is just a deep, prolonged hum, which elicits disconcerting reactions from her fellow contestants. Yet, the viewer cannot help but be absorbed by this overarching sound, much like the Hindu sound of ‘Om”, which is believed to be the primordial vibration that gave birth to everything, and all the energy and matter of the Universe are different states of that vibration. Thus, Maria’s anthem is not just limited to the world but is essentially a plea for unification to even the farthest of galaxies with her own self.
PART 2: CONFLICT, VIOLENCE, AND FLAME
An insidious cycle of contention and rivalry begins to take shape with the announcement of the next task of building a functioning telecommunications device. Maria’s quiet and mystical demeanor has been a source of vexation for Felicie more than anyone else, and Felicie often confronts her. This can be attributed to Felicie’s calculative nature which makes her feel secure only when she has sized up her opponents.
In one sequence, Maria talks about how, in Malay Archipelago, there are shrines of bones erected by wild boars as a tribute to their prey, which meets the fate of being washed away by the rain every autumn. This expression of her desire for transcendence is denounced by Felicie who feels that Maria is just pretentious and has greater motives. Maria responds to her by saying “I know when the time comes you won’t hesitate”. She agrees. This vaguely serves as a presentiment of the film’s ending. Maria’s refusal to participate in the brawl does not mean that she is unaware of the forces that are at play.
There are very few moments of tenderness encountered in the film, and Maria’s aforementioned monologue is one of them. Yet, its incongruity in the whole premise causes it to affect neither friend nor foe. The on-screen dynamics of the characters are often a comment upon our inability to share a real bond with another person, which does not have the structure of a giver-taker role. Andrew’s obsession with power politics is an example. When Bofill runs out of his protein supplement Xircolite which he seems to be addicted to, Andrew assures him that he would take care of it. As soon as he sets up his communication device, he tries it out by placing an order, which successfully arrives the next morning. Bofill is indebted to him and agrees to be in the downline of his company. Yet to his utter dismay, it is not Andrew but Felicie who wins the round, by presenting Andrew’s cell phone wrapped in a tin foil, which she had stolen earlier. Andrew’s sudden twist of fate might be a premonition of the toxic nature of the supplier-consumer relationship that he forms with Bofill.
The film starts to take a prominently darker turn at the Get-Me-an-Earlobe round. As soon as it is announced, a presumptuous Manny, desperate to win, cuts off his earlobe with a dagger and hands it to Homunculus. But on being further notified that the rule is to get someone else’s earlobe, to which Bofill cuts off Manny’s other earlobe and hands it to Homunculus. These horrifying tragicomic scenes question a sane man’s willingness to inflict harm on being coaxed by an authority or promised a prize. Such questions have always been of extensive interest to psychologists, and the infamous Stanford prison experiment or the Miligram experiment were founded on similar premises. The results obtained from the studies were equally absurd and shocking.
Deprived of both his earlobes, Manny is oddly determined to win at all costs. And that is why, even with half the average lung capacity, he chooses not to opt-out of the next round, which Homunculus calls ‘Diogenes nose-peg’ (named after the notorious Greek cynic Diogenes, who supposedly died by holding his own breath). Though presented prematurely, the title seems quite apt for the cynical turn of the events. It is not unforeseen when Manny wins the round, but is discovered to be dead soon after.
Who is Xiphosura?
Nothing is divulged about the identity of Xiphosura—the voice of the blinking red light in the conch shell device made by Maria. The general perception is that he is an oracle, though there is hardly any basis given for that belief. Perhaps, to the others, Xiphosura seems to be the source of Maria’s metaphysical rants, but to Maria, it is her own faith. Xiphosura tells Felicie something that she readily approves of—to leverage the feeder-eater relationship between Andrew and Bofill to debilitate one by eliminating the other. Felicie volunteers to make dubious protein drinks for an already sick Bofill to execute her plan. Bofill’s sickness is a cause of paranoia for Andrew, as he is afraid of losing his market.
He turns to Xiphosura for advice but is further aggravated by what he hears. Maria comes to know that the contesters were not chosen as a part of a certain plan, as Homunculus had told her, but at random. This revelation upsets her belief in purpose and causes her to turn to Xiphosura as well, who tells her to open doors and break glasses. Thus, it is evident that this entity tells entirely different things to different people, and it might be deduced that Xiphosura’s words are only a reflection of the mental state that the person is in, and he hears only what he anticipates to hear, but it is often mistaken as a piece of advice or premonition. The metaphorical presence of Xiphosura is indicative of our inability to listen, with patience, to our inner voices, and seeking validation elsewhere.
STANLEYVILLE (2021) MOVIE ENDING EXPLAINED:
PART 3: EXPLANATION AND SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ENDING
The film’s ending consists of a flurry of events which paints a fairly nebulous philosophical picture by the end. The cryptic penultimate round calls for the candidate to blow out a candle flame within the span of a minute, but at the cost of the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ and also, ascertains death if the task remains undone. This landlocked dilemma is not received well by either Felicie or Andrew (Bofill is immobilized due to illness), but Maria is exceptionally unfazed at the face of death. This is the only round which Maria wins, by extinguishing the flame with her fingers. Soon after this game, Bofill breathes his last, which brings about a complete nervous breakdown in Andrew. He is provoked further as Homunculus says that for the last round, he will be receiving a transmission, and pretending to listen to Maria’s conch shell, he obsessively calls Andrew a loser. Andrew, enraged and desperate, strangles Homunculus to death with his bare hands.
One would expect the games to cease for the better once Homunculus is dead, but that is not what follows. Maria takes charge and designs an elementary contest of getting a hat from a statue kept a few feet away. Felicie wins the hat but is attacked by Andrew and gets stabbed in the skirmish. After taking the hat from her, and the car keys from Homunculus’ backpack, Andrew declares himself to be the winner. Meanwhile, Maria gives an injured Felicie her handgun which she had received earlier in the box. Felice shoots Andrew in the head and acquires the car key from him. In spite of being in pain, we see her struggling into the driver’s seat of the car, and staying there as her expression changes from a gleeful grimace to that of a hopeless emptiness. Maria does not leave the pavilion. She unlatches and pulls open the door of the emergency exit, and on the other side, she once again sees the bird in flight against the open sky, similar to the opening scene in the office. The screen cuts to black and seconds later, we hear the shatter of glass.
Philosophical Significance of the Ending:
Stanleyville is a film that attempts to probe into the perceptible elements of human consciousness with a vision to transcend the same. As it progresses, each constituent is brought under the light, strained, and tested, and the picture of human perception grows like a monster being bred in captivity. Even within the small group of people, representing modern society, we witness unprecedented conflict and violence, to the point that surpassing this immediate reality with its promises of immediate comforts becomes a necessity. In Eastern as well as Western philosophy, the ego has been considered as that part of man which separates him from the rest of Nature.
Thus, man can be unified and free in himself only through the negation of this separating entity. Homunculus’ death signifies that such a unification is possible and close. Maria evolves in her understanding of the idea of transcendence. We now see her to be strangely accepting of the world, as she takes charge and facilitates the games which must be played and lets people do what they must. When she opens that door that has always been there right in front of her eyes, she realizes that it only takes her to the inception of her journey. The essence of her true self lies in the simplicity of the bird in flight, and there is no beginning or an end to it. The shattering of glass after the curtains are drawn further confirms that her worldly illusions are broken.
Who is the mastermind behind the absurd contest?
By refusing to address this question through the course of events, the auteur of the film translates it into a question that is existential in nature. In any dystopian premise, there is always another overpowering section of the society against whom a fight is declared. But no such divisions can be discerned here, as all are in the same boat. Thus, here the enemy seems to be more internalized in nature. It is a tale of a battle with an intrinsic authority—our own minds.