Andrew Egan (John Morton) is out of work and losing hope. He aspires to be a stand-up comedian but it isn’t happening for him. Cutaways show him bombing in front of an unseen audience. Whether these visions are real or imagined is unclear.
Andrew is forced to subsist on social welfare while he waits for his big break. An early back-and-forth between Andrew and his buddies, also unemployed, tells us that this break is a long time coming.
In a one-sided exchange with a social-welfare officer, Andrew is railroaded into a teaching job. He will be instructing other unemployed people as part of a back-to-work scheme. Any protests are met with disinterest. For Andrew, the old adage “those who can’t, teach” seems to fit nicely.
At times, it feels as if Andrew is a ghost or a passive participant in the story. People care little for what he says. Many ignore him entirely, talking at him rather than to him. Conversations are frequently shot from low angles, cuts are infrequent and sometimes the camera hangs for a beat or two too many. It’s a disquieting effect.
Despite its premise, and Andrew’s would-be profession, Locus of Control dodges easy laughs in favour of uneasy comedy.
There’s something mysterious and sinister about Andrew’s new workplace. The staff are peculiar and disengaged, showing little enthusiasm for their work. Andrew’s boss Durham (Ciaran McCauley) speaks in non sequiturs and exhibits disturbing vagaries. The impression is that Andrew’s predecessor came to an unfortunate end.
Another teacher, John (Seamus O’Rourke), is a husk of a person. He hides away in dark corners of the school, popping up to dispense advice or tell Andrew spooky stories. These monologues are highlights of the film, O’Rourke has a thousand-yard stare straight out of a war film: he’s seen some shit and is happy to unnerve Andrew, and the audience, with his stories.
In the classroom, Andrew butts heads with the his students. The three men and one woman that make up the class show the breadth and depth of Ireland’s unemployed. Old and young, with qualifications and without, their struggle is the same as Andrew’s, but for some reason he’s doling out the advice.
The situation is absurd. Andrew has no real sense of control or authority. In a typical back-to-school comedy, Andrew’s experience as a stand-up would give him the upper hand in any situation. In Locus of Control, Andrew’s wit is not an asset.
“Tell us a joke sir?” asks one of his students.
“I’m not that type of comedian,” replies Andrew, only to be mocked by the rest of the class.
There are no clever comebacks for Andrew, and we get the impression that he might not be able to muster any even in more favourable conditions.
What we’re seeing here is a riff on the anti-comedy comedies of recent years, Locus of Control shares many characteristics with “mumblecore” pictures or the feature films of Roy Andersson.
Andrew’s inexperience irks Anthony (Gus McDonagh) a surly, down-on-his-luck father of two who takes a quick dislike to his new teacher. This leads to a mounting sense of paranoia for Andrew, who believes Anthony is behind a series of minor and major sabotages.
The film’s writer/director, Sean Clancy, expresses these feelings through a series of montages that bring us into Andrew’s head. His eyes and ears are our eyes and ears. Dialogue gives way to the sound of rushing blood, shots disrupted by blinking cuts and fades.
The school is a shapeless labyrinth of stairs and corridors. It’s shot in a way that makes no architectural sense. How does Andrew end up in an overground warehouse by descending a flight of stairs to the basement? The institute operates on a sort of dream logic, or more accurately, as a waking nightmare.
The impossible architecture becomes a reflection of Andrew’s mental state. During his lowest period, the building is endless. A montage shows him crossing the same flight of stairs over and over again. Just as one Andrew leaves the frame, another takes his place.
All of the main players in Locus of Control are dealing with the same issues. They have hopes and dreams that they cannot achieve. Andrew, his students and colleagues are powerless in a system that keeps them in stasis. Ambition is only realised through fantasy, and those who do succeed do so as if by random.
The world of Clancy’s film may be cruel and uncaring, but there’s clearly a social conscience at play as well. Sometimes hard going, but with a sense of purpose, Locus of Control, is a squirmy and appealing black comedy with a bleeding heart.