“It’s a vocation, something you have to do. You don’t have a choice really. You can’t just shake it off. You’ve just got to make it work because it has to.”
This is how Andrew (John Morton), the protagonist of Irish dark comedy/thriller Locus of Control describes his dream of becoming a successful stand-up. However, like many young creative types in Ireland – musicians, writers, *cough* film critics – although he has skills and an arts degree, he is stymied due to outside forces, namely small demand and the aftermath of the recession.
Andrew has other problems. His girlfriend has just broken up with him. His best friend is moving to Australia. On top of this, social welfare begins breathing down his neck. Reluctantly, he accepts a temporary position teaching others in a similar boat to him how to get work in order to support his floundering comedy career.
Leading classes from an empty college, one presumes due to summer holidays, the building becomes a living purgatory for Andrew. There he teaches Chris (Peter McGann), another stand-up his age far more successful then him, and meets fellow teacher John (Seamus O’Rourke), an older failed painter who has given up on his dreams. The latter’s inane chatter, such as recounting a story about a cousin of his who found himself up a hill with no idea how he got there, often doubles as metaphor for Andrew’s precarious situation.
Writer-director Sean Clancy has described the film as ‘The Shining meets a FAS Course’. This is on account of Andrew, like Jack Torrance, being a creative type driven crazy in a vast empty building. There’s also touches of Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy in regards its elliptical narrative and slow creeping dread, and of the absurdist comedy and existentialism of Yorgos Lanthimos or some of the Coen Brothers’ work.
What’s impressive about Locus of Control is that it evokes all these great filmmakers while still feeling like its own singular vision. Perhaps this is down to the fact that Clancy is drawing from the playbook of these cinematic masters to tell a personal relatable story. The writer-director said in an interview with Headstuff that Locus of Control was inspired by a computer course he was forced to take part of while claiming social welfare.
As Andrew is tasked with giving people in the same position of him – some of whom are much older – personality tests and CV tips, Locus of Control puts the confusing, condescending bureaucracy of these mandatory courses right in its crosshairs. While they might seem useful to those in power that implement them, they either teach unemployed people basic principles they already know or skills that won’t help them. Meanwhile, having to attend the classes themselves takes time that could be used by these people to actually find work.
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The film also explores how unemployment has a profound effect on a person’s mental health. Watching Andrew become fueled with jealousy and self-loathing witnessing the Dapper Laughs inspired Chris’ hilariously exaggerated rise-to-fame is uncomfortable in how recognisable it feels.
Despite being shot on a budget of only €800, Locus of Control looks great. Many of the tricks Clancy employs to get around making a feature at this micro-level, such as employing no extras and having the movie mostly set in an empty building, help reinforce the film’s central idea that the college space is some sort of personal purgatory or hell for Andrew. The director also pulls a handful of simple, ingenious tricks like having an audience laugh track play over his protagonist practicing his on-stage routine – signifying his break with reality – or using fish eye lenses to make the college’s hallways look freakishly long, almost never-ending.
Locus of Control is a hazy dreamlike dark comedy, with sharp satire and a humanist touch. If Clancy could accomplish this on a budget of €800, imagine what he could do with more. He is one to watch.