Society’s Prejudices and Woes Populate the Mind-Bending CIRCLE

by Frank Calvillo

One of my favorite classic TV shows of all time remains Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. The early ’70s anthology series may only have been on for three seasons, yet that was more than enough to time to create a plethora of socially-conscious tales full of spellbinding mystery, horror, and thrills for years and years to come.

For me, one of the most memorable of the show’s episodes was a vignette entitled “Class of ‘99,” which starred Vincent Price as a college professor from the future who administers an oral exam to his class in which they assess each other, highlighting prejudices and stereotypes, after which Price proclaims them as graduated and ready for society.

It’s eerie, if sadly unsurprising, that the episode’s predictions were alive and well when the episode was rerun in the year it so horrifyingly depicted. Watching Circle, Serling himself would have applauded the film’s Night Gallery-like plot, while at the same time being surprised by how much what he considered highly fictional representations of society at the time, now WAS society.

Circle begins in a dark room, where 50 people from all walks of life, different races, ages, and backgrounds, find themselves in a darkened room. No one knows how or why they’re there. All of a sudden, a set of dim lights come up and the group discovers they are standing on parts of a giant circle, which light up every time a sound signals. Each time this happens, one of the individuals falls to the ground dead and is carried away by an unknown force. The group soon realize that it is them determining who the circle will kill next by the number of votes they cast. Almost immediately, fears and prejudices take hold as the dwindling number of men and women make cases as to who should be the next to die until there is only one person left.

In spite of the many social aspects within it, Circle is one of the most simplistic, yet mind bending film experiences of recent times. The overflowing amounts of mystery, suspense, and torment the audience must endure throughout the film is relentless. Despite a seemingly straightforward premise, the rules of the circle keep unfolding and surprising as the group tries to find new ways to stay alive, whether it be banding together or simply turning on each other. Aside from the twisted nature of the game’s rules, there are the smaller side games the unwilling participants are playing on each other, including assigning blame to one another in the hopes of triggering the overall group’s moral prejudices.

Circle is populated with every kind of character type found in society in terms of race, age, sex, and social standing. In Circle, no one is spared and no one is safe, regardless of who they are or where they come from. If the film feels almost too diverse in a way, its only because it needs to be. Issues such as immigration, race, homosexuality, and ageism are dealt with front and center without any sort of beating around the bush or trying to remain polite. The circumstances don’t afford the characters the luxury of tact and understanding. As a result, the heart of many of today’s stereotypes are explored and brought to light in ways other films would only be able to hint at.

Though it might not be remembered for them, Circle should be lauded for the questions it dares to ask, including the ultimate one: who deserves to live, according to society? Arguments for a returning soldier and a woman in remission from breast cancer as candidates for sacrifice are just as conflicting as those suggesting that a pregnant woman and a little girl be spared from elimination. Who is the most unworthy of life and who deserves to live most?

Due to the indie nature of Circle, there is a fair amount of amateurish acting, which at times tends to take away from the power of the film. However, the absence of name actors is vital here. Populating the film with unknown actors helps to look at these individuals as real people rather than movie stars.

Unfortunately once again because of the film’s nature, there doesn’t really seem to be anybody to root for, with Carter Jenkins’ college kid character coming off as especially loathsome. Somehow though, this only serves to make Circle a more interesting venture as the decision of who is good and bad becomes harder and harder as the story progresses and the number of people becomes less.

While Circle is full of moments and characters which are quick to incite feelings of anger and rage, there are also some scattered moments which prove oddly heartfelt. The moments when a 16-year old volunteers to die simply because he doesn’t want to kill anyone else, and a grieving mother does the same to escape the pain she’s feeling from losing her son the year before, are both touching and telling.

Its inevitable that some may view Circle as a venting exercise for a great many of society’s hang ups and woes. Yet the film presents a very Darwinian take on things wrapped in it’s deliciously Serling-esque plot. Because of it’s ability to divide its audience as much as its characters, Circle proves itself as an entertaining mystery and an interesting assessment on how we categorize each other and ourselves.

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