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SIFF 2015: Twisted ‘Circle’ is an irresistible thought experiment

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Circle
Written & Directed by Aaron Hann & Mario Miscione
USA, 2015

Society loves a good label. After all, labels allow us to judge people without the hassle of actually talking to them. But what if these superficial judgements were a matter of life and death? That’s the question posed by the fascinating new psychological thriller, Circle. Writer-directors Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione mix satire, horror, and science fiction into an irresistible social experiment that puts all of us under the microscope. Relentless and gripping, Circle is a battle royal for “civilized” society.

Fifty strangers awaken to find themselves standing inside a circle.

They cannot move.

They cannot touch each other.

And every two minutes, one of them will die.

These are the rules established by the fiendishly clever Circle. What is administering the seemingly random death beam from the center of the circle is not important. All that matters is that it will keep killing until only one person remains. What the 50 unlucky “contestants” soon realize, however, is that this seemingly random death beam isn’t so random, after all. They determine which person will be executed next. How does one decide who lives and who dies? How is a consensus reached on playing God?

For nearly two decades, television audiences have delighted at deciding the fate of contestants on popular reality programs like Survivor. In a world of 140 characters or less, we’ve become experts at judging people based on a profile picture or a carelessly chosen word. Filmmakers Aaron Hann & Mario Miscione take these phenomena to their logical conclusion in Circle. All of the social archetypes are represented, including The Wife (Julie Benz), The College Guy (Carter Jenkins), The Soldier (Jordi Vilasuso) and The Rich Man (Daniel Lench). We also get lots of racial profiling, such as The Asian Kid (Lawrence Kao) and The Hispanic Man (David Saucedo). There are a few people we come to know by name, like the ultra-rational Eric (Michael Nardelli) and the desolated Shaun (Daniel Yelsky), but, mostly, the filmmakers force us to play executioner with as little information as possible.

deathWhat makes Circle so damn riveting is the process of elimination; the mechanisms by which we evaluate the worthiness of a life. We run down the laundry list of prejudicial “isms,” including ageism, racism and sexism. Then we wade into murkier waters with the hot-button moral triggers, like religion, sexual orientation, and criminality. Sometimes, the justice is cold and swift, such as a non-English speaker being labeled as “a waste of time,” or an elderly person dismissed as “the next to die, anyway.” Other times, as with The Pregnant Girl (Allegra Masters) or The Little Girl (Molly Jackson), fates are hotly debated. It’s in these debates that our humanity comes into glaring relief. When the will to survive is pitted against our primordial reproductive instincts, the results are sometimes terrifying.

That’s not to say that Circle is a clinical exercise. Far from it. Tensions and emotions run high throughout, particularly when someone volunteers to be the next victim. It’s heartbreaking to hear someone admit they have no reason to live, and to see a room full of people giddy over that misfortune. As the survivors dwindle and the “unworthy” element is eliminated, political wrangling takes center stage. This portion isn’t as emotionally involving, but it remains a fascinating peek into the calculus of survival.

orbIf Hann and Miscione make one mistake with Circle it might be providing too much explanation at the end. In a film as merciless and challenging as this, tidy explanations feel like a cheat. We don’t need to know who holds the hand of fate. The malevolent host is far less interesting than the desperate contestants manipulating the rules.

The ensemble cast does a great job with this highly charged material. What could easily slip into melodrama remains grounded in realism, and much of that is attributed to the performances. The key is putting us in that room; forcing us to play along with this impossible game, constantly questioning our own motivations and ideals. Toward that purpose, most of the actors are relative unknowns, though there are several potential breakout candidates, including Nardelli and Kao.

In a year that already boasts the likes of H. and Ex Machina, Circle only adds to the forward momentum of smart indie sci-fi. Though the visual elements are downplayed, the editing style and breakneck pacing create a seductive backdrop for the filmmakers’ ideas. This is a disturbing look into our own shadowy mirror. You might not like what you see, but it’s simply too thrilling to look away.

Circle makes its world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival.


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