Arson, blackmail, murder ... there are so many crimes in "The Square," even the main character can’t keep track.
It’s déjà vu all over again in stuntman-turned-director Nash Edgerton’s technically masterful, emotionally hollow debut feature. Once again we’re back in a nightmare noir full of duplicitous dames, anonymous blackmail notes, duffel bags stuffed with cash and late-night rendezvous at seedy motels. Things go from bad to worse with clockwork precision. And since this is Australia, we also have to worry about sharks.
If you want to talk about craftsmanship, The Square is top of the line. Edgerton displays some serious chops behind the camera, and his brother Joel’s screenplay (co-written with Matthew Dabner) doles out the twists and surprise kills with brutal efficiency. But if you want to talk about personality, the film is about as evocative as its title.
David Roberts stars as Ray, a middle-aged construction developer in a Sydney suburb, carrying on a not-exactly-torrid affair with Carla (Claire van der Boom), a much younger hairdresser from the shadier side of town. Their afternoon backseat trysts aren’t quite cutting it for her anymore, so Carla hatches an escape plan for these elicit lovers, after discovering a bag containing 40 grand and bloody towels, stashed in the attic by her dim-bulb, mulleted, tow-truck driving husband Smithy (Anthony Hayes).
How about swiping the money, and then burning down the house so hubby will never know it got stolen? Then maybe after waiting it out for a while these two can make a clean break without arousing suspicion? Sure, I can’t imagine anything that could possibly go wrong with such a perfect crime.
Hard at work on his own illegal kickback schemes while building a low-rent Honeymoon Hotel, the lovestruck Ray nonetheless finds himself in negotiations with a strangely principled arsonist (well-played by screenwriter Joel) who takes pride in his work, while doting on his mentally challenged girlfriend (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence.)
Naturally, this all goes spectacularly tits-up, and faster than you can say Blood Simple, Ray’s trying to figure out where to stash a body. He’s up to his ears in sin so quickly that by the time he finally starts getting those cryptic blackmail threats, Ray can no longer even guess which crime they’re referencing.
This is an eminently watchable, tightly plotted, well-made movie. But it’s one we’ve seen countless times. Allusions abound to James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and the Edgertons obviously worship at the altar of the Coen Brothers. What they’re missing is their predecessors’ devious wit and almost cosmic sense of inevitability. These two are obviously in complete command of their craft, without bringing anything new to the party.
Stiffly portrayed by Roberts, Ray is too bland and recessive to make a compelling noir dupe. His affair with Clara is un-sexy, so we’re missing that crucial feeling of amour fou that might drive a successful suburban businessman to pick up a shovel and start swinging at a co-worker. It’s telling that the film’s most interesting figure is the arsonist, who disappears for huge chunks of screen time that we can only assume he’s off somewhere in a more colorful movie.
There are a few grace notes here and there. An ill-fated love story between our main characters’ dogs is the picture’s saddest surprise, and Edgerton makes novel use of Australia’s summery Christmas celebrations.
“One guy points his dick in the wrong direction and here we are,” snarls one of the story’s shadier types. Yes, and unfortunately we’ve been here too often before.
On the brighter side, Nash Edgerton’s 2007 short film Spider is being shown in theaters before The Square. (This is such a good idea I don’t know why distributors don’t do it more often.) A scant nine minutes in length, it follows a bickering couple on a road trip and illuminates the complicated dynamics of their relationship with admirable economy and great warmth, setting us up for one of the greatest sicko punch-lines I have ever seen.
The Square is passable, but Spider is inspired.