Welcome to the Circle, a cult in the middle of a remote forest. Blessings on you! Good tidings and all that! When a father and his daughter are attacked in the woods by a bear (maybe?), they find themselves rescued by The Circle, a small group consisting of lovely females and a bald leader who spout platitudes and goodness, but who should seem to everyone to be more than a little off. Is The Circle just a harmless bunch of neo-hippies unplugging from the grid, or is there something sinister about them?
Dad Greg (Matthew MacCaull, “Tomorrowland”) and his young daughter Samantha (Taylor Dianne Robinson, “Last Night in Suburbia”) are camping and bonding, bonding and camping when the attack comes. When Greg awakes, he’s in a bed surrounded by mosquito nets and two comely lasses — and no daughter. He’s in The Circle, they tell him! The Circle! Blessings, tidings, etc., etc. Don’t worry, they say, your daughter is in class! (How long was this fella out?) And Greg should meet Matthew! Blessings!
Well, Greg does indeed meet Matthew (Michael Rogers, “The ABCs of Death”), who naturally extols the value of being in The Circle and how awesome The Circle is as long as you’re a believer, and if you think I wouldn’t be eyeing that door like mad at this point, you’d be way wrong. Greg is indeed unsettled by the off-kilter way the denizens of The Circle are, but he’s still really banged up and can’t do much but shamble hither and yon, mostly hither.
His daughter Sam, it turns out, loves it at The Circle. Doesn’t want to leave, no matter how unsettling Greg finds it all to be. Never mind that there aren’t really any other kids there — although there are a lot of realistic-looking mannequins. And there’s this one guy who goes fishing the first morning that Greg and Sam are at The Circle, and Matthew tags along, and that’s the last we see of that guy.
While Greg and Sam are experiencing the wonder that is The Circle, a man and a woman plots to infiltrate The Circle and rescue one of the cultists, Rebekah (Cindy Busby, “The Big Year”), sister to one and wife to the other. They’ve hired a man named Grady (Ben Cotton, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”), which rhymes with Shady, which is the vibe Grady gives off — but he sure seems to know a heck of a lot about The Circle, and I’m sure you can guess why. Grady packs a tranquilizer handgun — just in case Rebekah doesn’t come willingly — and the lone wolf/reluctant hero is off to rescue the princess, or something.
For the first half (at least) of Welcome to the Circle, the movie feels like a run-of-the-mill cult movie. Well, more specifically, a movie about cults. That is, you meet the inhabitants, you can tell there’s something kind of amiss, it takes time for the Hero to figure that out, and then the Hero escapes, or tries to. And all of that happens here, but it turns out there’s a hell of a lot more than meets the eye to The Circle. What if you ran into a cult that wasn’t founded on mistaken beliefs? What if the underlying “superpower” that the cult was in thrall to was actually supernatural? What if these aren’t just some deranged, blissfully naive granola munchers . . . what if, instead, they’re certifiably dangerous because the power in which they believe is authentic and malevolent?
That’s where Welcome to the Circle (somewhat) redeems itself. Reality becomes distorted, not just for the characters but for us. The latter makes things a little tough to follow, but there’s just enough organic exposition along the way to prevent us from getting too disoriented. The movie reminded me a little of “The Endless,” which likewise centered around a cult that turned out to be on to something and not just on something. If nothing else, this film takes pains to explain the difference between “real-fake” and “fake-fake” — with the latter being something meant to look fake, like those creepy mannequins, but is actually real. Oh, snap — are those mannequins real? Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Maybe it’s all a big fake out. But as one character puts it, if you’re told over and over for years on end that X is true, you’re gonna believe X is true even if your eyes tell you different.
The movie is filled with philosophical claptrap that, even under the best conditions, would make one’s mind spin out of control — tautological control, anyway. The Circle is The Circle, the meaning is the meaning of the meaning. You know, first-grade stuff. This rhetoric produces a film that’s a lot less grounded than it needs to be, bedeviling the viewer into wondering if it all means something or is simply, to borrow from the movie itself, a bunch of smoke and mirrors. Even the bloody violence — and there’s plenty of it! — doesn’t really bring things down to earth.
Welcome to the Circle is marred by some clunky storytelling, predominantly in the first half, when it presents itself as unimaginative. But then it takes off into a world of creativity. Another gripe, one that lasts throughout the movie — the sound mixing was pretty bad. Background sound and score should be, you know, in the background, and yet in most scenes it was mixed so loudly that you can barely hear what the characters are saying. Since they were typically giving the viewers some exposition, this was quite the debit. As for the acting, I’ll single out Robinson (as Samantha) and Jordana Largy (“Rememory”) who plays a Circlist Tina, both of whom give superb, multilayered performances. As for the rest, there’s a lot of nothingness.