Many high-concept horror films have striven for the strong, minimalistic dissection of the value of a human life that is on display in Circle. And yet all of them, whether Saws or Purges, have gotten lost in the weeds either going for audience-pleasing gore or on-the-nose class warfare. Circle, from web-series directors Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, is the apotheosis of the concept – placing 50 participants in a room and murdering one of them every two minutes with a simple bolt of CGI lightning. The body is immediately shuffled from the room by an unseen force, and the remaining participants are momentarily insulated from the horrific truth and consequences of their predicament. With simple (and completely secretive) motions of their hands and fingers, they are choosing the next person who will die.
What makes Circle so clever is its subtle and incisive satire of the political process. At its highest levels, politics delineates who should hold absolute power over life and death. Even in the real world, a vote for a chief executive is a vote for someone who will kill others on your behalf. Circle renders this concept with a staggering level of immediacy, and through a filter of lightning-paced direct democracy.
Who should live? Me.
Who should die? Somebody else.
Several of the participants engage in credible and well-acted politicking, and the two-minute timeframe between deaths propels these scenes along at an impressive pace. Anyone who wants to sell the group on a particular victim, talk others into sacrificing themselves, or engage in scapegoating or coalition-building has mere moments in which to do it. Anyone cross-examining or contradicting others has even less time. And others simply stay quiet, avoiding notice while remaining complicit in each outcome.
And at all times, the speechifying in this film about whose life is valuable and why is tinged with a layer of jet-black irony – because these are all murderers, debating which of them most deserves to keep on murdering. And if there’s one thing this film makes clear, it’s that the best politician isn’t necessarily the one who has enjoyed the greatest past success, nor even the one who is speaking most eloquently, obnoxiously, or vehemently. In a two-minute news cycle, a single scandal or misstatement or misunderstanding of the tenor of the room can end your political career in an instant – or carry it forward in an indefensible manner.
One man devises an impromptu moral condemnation of a married lesbian whose wife and daughter wait at home. Both of them play this scene brilliantly, and its outcome says as much and more about the filmmakers as about the political climate in which the film was made. Every piece of scapegoating or moralizing that appears in this film does so for a clear and obvious reason – it works. For someone. We all may be wrongdoers, but as long as that other guy, over there, is worse than we are – we’re justified in slaughtering him in preemptive self-defense. Several of the participants strive to be decent throughout. And yet, everyone in this film is despicable, made so by their circumstances, in-group biases, and basest survival instincts. Shame on them and all of us for playing out an allegory that’s so real and unforgiving.
Oh, and the film is occasionally quite funny. Don’t know if I made that clear.
FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10
Circle is playing once more at #SIFF2015, on Friday May 29th at 1:15PM. As of this writing, tickets are still available.