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Wikipedia description: “Circle is a 2015 American psychological thriller film… In the film, fifty people wake up in a darkened room, only to find that one of them is killed every two minutes or when they attempt to leave. When they realize that they can control which person is selected to die, blocs emerge based on personal values.”
Not that many. I remember adding it to the list when it was first screened at film festivals and thinking it was an intriguing concept, but that the film’s poster and some reviews made it seem like a cut-rate, even-lower budget version of Cube (1997).
I completely forgot about it until I saw that it had been added to Netflix.
Why I Took it off the List
Browsing Netflix for something interesting to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I noticed Circle was listed under the thriller sidebar and became intrigued by it again. Having recently watched the fantastic El Hoyo (2019), a similarly socially-minded sci-fi, I was in the mood for it.
When I snuck a glance at the reviews for the film on Rotten Tomatoes, I noticed that the majority were pretty positive, and largely praised the tension and structure of the script. Being a fan of Twilight Zone-style scenarios, which this definitely seemed to be, I decided to give the film a look.
Spoilers? Nope! I may include spoilers in some reviews, but not in this one. If I do include spoilers, I’ll give you fair warning.
Review of Circle
Circle is one of those low-budget films that takes a simple set-up largely based in a single location and spins it out into a feature, a venture that often lives or dies on the quality of the script.
Even then, limited-location thrillers are usually spiced up by cutaways to other action or flashbacks, as in Saw (2004), or 127 Hours (2010), or held together by a charismatic central performer giving it their all, as with Ryan Reynolds in Buried (2010) or Tom Hardy in Locke (2013).
Luckily, Circle has a well-developed script that digs surprisingly deep into psychological and moral dilemmas and keeps the tension high throughout. It is somewhat similar to Cube in concept but has more of an emphasis on exploring the ethical dilemma of a deadly survival situation.
There are no central stars in Circle to hold the audience’s attention: the closest thing the film gets to a recognizable performer is Julie Benz, best known as Rita from Dexter (2006-2013).
But she gets no more screen time than most of the other 49 unfortunate souls who find themselves held against their will in a mysterious room atop a kind of hellish gameshow set/living board game.
The diverse range of people wake up in a black void-lined space with glowing red floor tiles and a bulbous central contraption that emits ominous beeps and buzzes. There is no Jigsaw-like figure to explain the rules of this obvious trap, so the forced participants begin to try to work it out amongst themselves as a group.
And this is where the impressively sustained tension in the film kicks in, as, who would guess it, a large group of individuals do not all share the same opinion. Especially when it turns out that the diabolical contraption is killing somebody off every two minutes, and that they can actually influence the decision by casting a vote.
Insightful Observations into Group-think
One of the best devices that Hann and Miscione’s script employs is the restriction of space and movement given to the characters. All of the victims in this group are confined to a small dot of flooring, as, if they step off, they instantly get zapped and killed.
This forces the characters to interact and begrudgingly try to reason with each other, and also to become even more guarded as the question of who lives and who dies becomes hinged on opinion and moral grandstanding.
This leads to some pretty insightful observations into group-think, and as well as to several provocative ethical dilemmas as the group tries to weed out any perceived moral failings in the people around them.
It quickly becomes a fascinating and disturbing investigation into how far people will go to survive, helped by a clever and carefully considered script.
There are also some nice little touches in Circle that add to the believable world-building, including a layout whose continuity and positioning is carefully cultivated, as well as the strange functions of the deadly puzzle the protagonists find themselves in.
I found the ending to be a bit of a letdown after everything, as the possible implications about just who manages to survive the circle are left a bit vague, although the reveal of the final survivor(s) and how they managed to play the game is certainly surprising and even shocking.
Still, the final shot leaves you with more questions than answers and feels more like sequel bait than a satisfying conclusion.
Maybe a second part will see the light of day now the film is being pushed by Netflix, and I for one definitely wouldn’t be against the idea of seeing a whole new slice of society being put through a circle-inflicted ringer.
Final Score: 7/10
Worth checking out?
Yes, this smartly written sci-fi takes more than a few leaves out of Cube’s book but succeeds as a thought-provoking examination of society on its own. Not a bad way to spend a lazy Sunday evening, even if it doesn’t quite match the shocks and production value of El Hoyo.
Saying that, I can’t guarantee that on Monday morning you won’t be paranoid about which of your co-workers would bump you off in a similar Circle situation.
Find out what I thought of another horror recently added to Netflix in my next review.