“Circle” adapts the framework of reality TV to a “Twilight Zone”-style premise with surprisingly effective results. The premise: A group of fifty people—all Americans, of varying race, class, and background—wake up in a room that looks like the set of “The Weakest Link” (but, thankfully, with a shiny black sphere in the center rather than an annoying British lady). Every two minutes one of them is killed. Each person gets one vote to decide who should die next. If no one votes, one person is randomly killed. The “game” ends when one person is left standing. Writer-directors Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione get the rules out of the way pretty quickly and primarily focus on the gamesmanship. Once the group figures out the parameters of their situation, they quickly start eliminating the elderly and the criminal, and, from there, leaders rise and fall, loyalties start to form, and power shifts among different factions.
“Circle” is little more than a feature-length illustration of a premise, populated by types rather than actual human beings, but it is handled more intelligently (or at least more craftily) than one might at first expect. The stereotyping can be fairly lunkheaded—the white guy with slicked-back hair and suspenders is, unsurprisingly, a conservative asshole; the Hispanic guy in a wife-beater beats his wife—but there is also a way in which this premise inherently requires types. People will inevitably employ stereotypes when forced to make split-second life-or-death decisions of this nature, and Hann and Miscione produce a relatively credible narrative about how stereotypes about race and class might play into the group dynamic.
In its least believable move, Hann and Miscione have their characters speak coherently with a minimum of crosstalk and indistinguishable screeching. That’s because, like Rod Serling before them, Hann and Miscione are more interested in the mechanics of human beings’ ethical processes than in their emotional and physical responses to imminent death. This means that “Circle,” like most “Twilight Zone” episodes, operates with a relatively abstract view of humanity, but it does make for a more suspenseful and watchable movie than a more realistic vision of human behavior would likely produce. And, really, watchability may be “Circle”’s best feature. I’m not sure it ultimately provides any particular insight into our collective psyche—its primary observation, a fairly obvious one, is that, faced with a choice between one’s own life and the life of another, people are basically divided into two groups: those who choose life with moral compromise and those who choose death—but it does keep the viewer interested in who will survive and what, morally speaking, will be left of them. And, to my surprise, “Circle” manages to run its premise all the way to a logical, satisfying conclusion.