It’s 2019, and runaway inflation has sunk the American economy into a cesspool of sky-high prices and rampant unemployment. A loaf of bread costs $50; bars advertise bargain deals on $90 beer Tuesdays. “We’re on the edge of tyranny, people!” shouts Jon Schaffer, a tatted-up almost-skinhead wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘End the Fed’ as he promotes his new book, “Legalize Money.” “For thousands of years, most civilizations’ money was based on silver or gold or something physical.”
This is the world of “Silver Circle” (March 22), a new, independent animated feature that is as striking for its unusual style as its naked politicking. Produced by Two Lanterns Media, a small animation studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and distributed by Area23a, “Silver Circle” is the brainchild of director and producer Pasha Roberts, who started the company (originally known as Lineplot) to create 3-D graphics for financial companies and later developed a web series called “Save Sonny” for the libertarian magazine “Reason” about the (alleged) perils of Social Security.
That libertarian leaning (which is perhaps too mild a term) is put on dramatic display in “Silver Circle.” A little more backstory of this unrecognizable America just six years into the future: after the dollar loses its place as the world’s reserve currency, lightning inflation hits the U.S. and craters the national economy. The Federal Reserve, through the cover of its new sub-agency, the Department of Housing Stability, begins to buy up the nation’s housing stock in an attempt to stabilize home prices by creating a Strategic Housing Reserve, doing so by force if necessary and evicting ordinary citizens from their homes at gunpoint.
Against the backdrop of this strange, not-so-new world (the 2019 of “Silver Circle” looks surprisingly and inexplicably like the 90s–OK, maybe the early 2000s), we meet our hero, Jay Nelson, a straight-arrow, tall-dark-and-handsome arson investigator at the Department of Housing Stability. Nelson finds himself drawn into the shadowy world of a group of rebels minting their own non-paper currency (the eponymous silver circles) by Zoe, a rebel who, impressively, finds enough hours in the day to plan to overthrow of the Federal Reserve and also hold down a full-time job at a real estate company. (Is this ironic? It’s hard to tell.)
By the end of the film (spoiler alert!) Nelson comes to recognize the corruption and tyranny of the government for which he works and helps the rebels blow up a sizable portion of the Federal Reserve’s paper money stock while simultaneously bringing down the corrupt Fed chairman, Victor Brandt, who has been angling to convert his position into a lifetime appointment. Or maybe Nelson does it because he has the hots for Zoe, who is markedly more attractive than the roughly zero other female characters we (or he) meet along the way.
It’s not that “Silver Circle” is a bad movie, per se. Yes, there’s something strange about the style of the film’s animation, which its website describes as somehow motion capture-based but which ends up conveying an off-putting lack of emotional nuance or acting on the characters’ faces. (In one scene where Nelson and Zoe engage in a pre-tryst make-out, it’s hard to tell if their animated lips actually touch at any point). This is a not entirely surprising result for an animated feature made on $1.6 million.
But there is some good moviemaking in here as well, like a car chase scene that leads to a good cat-and-mouse sequence as Zoe and Nelson evade Brandt’s henchmen. In general, sets and backgrounds come across better than characters, so the film’s broader, less dialogue-focused scenes play more naturally.
The real problem, though, is “Silver Circle”‘s omnipresent, black-and-white argument about monetary policy and political economy. The website for “Silver Circle” asserts that the movie is not politically partisan and “does not represent any certain political party.” The keyword there is ‘party,’ not ‘political’–while one could reasonably make the case that the film’s rebels (and its villains, for that matter) can’t be classified as Democrats or Republicans, the political message of “Silver Circle” is clear. When your film includes a guy in a Ron Paul shirt playing guitar on the street singing lyrics like “I will not submit to authority,” it’s not too hard to tell which way the wind is blowing.
This heavy-handedness of message ends up robbing “Silver Circle” of any real power to elicit a change of mind or even self-questioning in its viewers. The film’s argument itself comes across as an almost authoritarian fiat (silver and gold: good, paper money: bad), and is enough to make anyone with an ounce of iconoclasm in his or her bones want to run to the ATM to grab a fistful of dollars, just to mess with the system-that-isn’t-a-system.
“Silver Circle” could be a more successful film if it had taken its anti-paper money, pro-individual message and expressed it in a setting that was less recognizable than the DC-area suburbs through which Jay Nelson and Zoe romp. One of the most powerful aspects of the best politically dystopic works of art is the combination of the personal and the political. We rarely see the political machinations of George Orwell’s Airstrip One in “1984”; instead, we experience the effect that such a society has on the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith. It’s only through Winston’s eyes that we come to truly understand the horrors of Airstrip One.
It’s hard to find any character as relatable–or even as humanly frail–as Winston Smith in “Silver Circle.” Jay Nelson is introduced as a paragon of honesty, and he throws his lot in with the rebels after a surprisingly quick change of heart and mind. He never seems to undergo any sort of fundamental change; because he doesn’t, neither do we. This right-or-wrong infallibility makes it hard to see Nelson–or “Silver Circle” itself–as more than a political cartoon, an image of hyperbole that makes its point but doesn’t engender much further discussion.
“Silver Circle” opens in New York City on March 22 for a week-long engagement at Cinema Village.