“Welcome to the circle” is a recurring utterance in writer/director David Fowler’s debut feature of the same name. These words are addressed to anybody finding their way into an isolated woodland community whose few residents – Rebekah (Cindy Busby), Lotus Cloud (Heather Doerksen), Sky (Andrea Brooks) and Mathew (Michael Rogers) – are clearly the wide-eyed members of a cult.
After their tent is attacked during the night by what appears to be a bear, the injured Greg (Matthew MacCaull) and his young daughter Samantha (Taylor Dianne Robinson) end up being accommodated and indeed welcomed to the Circle – but Greg is quick to pick up on the place’s strange vibe and to worry for his daughter’s safety. The warning signs are everywhere, whether the handmade masks that the members and now even Samantha wear, or the circular gobbledygook that they recite to one another, or the creepy mannequins scattered all over the place, or the mesmerising black-and-white photographs of the group’s late leader Percy Stephens engaged in strange activities, or the accidentally witnessed meal that the group appears to make of their only other guest, the bound and gagged Michael (Christian Tessier). Terrified, Greg tries to get out with Sam – but leaving the Circle will prove a lot harder than entering it.
Much as the Circle lacks a middle, the film’s narrative too comes decidedly decentred, with the story of Greg’s panicky efforts to escape soon giving way to a different story in which former Circle member Grady (Ben Cotton) leads an attempt to infiltrate the Circle and rescue Rebekah for deprogramming. Helped (if that is the word) by Rebekah’s husband James (Matt Bellefleur) and their friend Gabriella (Hilary Jardine), intense, unhinged Grady returns to the place that he once fled, to face the part of himself that he abandoned there.
Welcome To The Circle is not just a film about a cult – but is also, as the very title implies, inviting the viewer to be initiated into its own binding illogic. For as all newcomers to the Circle, and we along with them, explore this little sylvan utopia, the film quickly releases its grip on reality, confounding spatiotemporal norms, looping scenes, disrupting the difference between original and simulacrum, showing personhood as a disembodied continuum, and transcending death itself. It confounds insider and outsider perspectives on a cult’s workings, and deploys irrational spaces and koan-like arguments to break down any defences that we might have against its beguiling mumbo-jumbo and paradoxical fancies.
The result is an ever more disorienting trip through locations that we are repeatedly told are a mere ‘façade’ (and whose interconnections make no sense), in search of an overarching meaning that cannot exist. This heady confusion represents something akin to the experience of being trapped in a cult, with no clue any more of what – beyond all the brainwashing tenets, the hoodwinking perspectives, the gaslighting rituals and mantras – is real anymore. Pitching its camp somewhere between Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless (2017) and Riley Stearns’ Faults (2014), Fowler’s literal cult movie will leave you bewildered and shell-shocked – and perhaps, once its crazy ideas and dizzying topographies have got into your head, it will be impossible ever to leave them fully behind.