A film review by Craig J. Koban August 31, 2010

Rank:  #7


2010, R, 116 mins.


Ray: David Roberts / Carla: Claire van der Boom / Smithy: Anthony Hayes / Billy: Joel Edgerton
Jake: Peter Phelps

Directed by Nash Edgerton / Written by Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner, based on an original story by Joel Edgerton

Like the perverse product of a cinematic three-way between BLOOD SIMPLE, A SIMPLE PLAN, and BODY HEAT, THE SQUARE emerges as an uncommonly disciplined and meticulously nuanced film noir from Down Under.  Directed by Aussie stuntman turned film director Nash Edgerton (making his feature length debut here) and based on an original idea by Joel Edgerton (whom many North American audiences may remember for his very brief appearance in REVENGE OF THE SITH) that he later fleshed out into a script with Matthew Dabner, THE SQUARE is a borderline nerve-wracking thriller made with a passion and deliciously downbeat veracity.  There are no distinct heroes or villains on display here, just a sorry and dysfunctional set of adults that all make terrible choices that sadistically bring about dire consequences.  The film is exceptionally devious for how it builds to its horrible payoffs: it speaks to a universal truth that even the very best laid plans can go horribly afoul.  

And I do mean horribly

THE SQUARE, especially for a first feature film for its 37-year-old director and novice screenwriters, does something with a skill, polish, and authority that few modern, large scale Hollywood noir thrillers are able to muster: it shows a focus and patience with the underlining story and allows its convoluted series of events to unfold with a masterful exactitude.  Too many recent thrillers and action pictures feel like they are made for deeply afflicted Attention Deficit Disordered audience members; they either browbeat us with hyper-stylized visual flourishes and spastic direction and editing or they feel the need to thoroughly rush their storylines out of fear of losing their viewers.  

THE SQUARE does the exact opposite: it neither moves too fast nor does it attempt to aesthetically wow us with cheap stylistic flourishes.  Instead, Edgerton lovingly and carefully lets the story leisurely unfold to a series a disastrous events, to the point where one calamitous event befalls another that, unavoidably, leads to an emotionally disheartened conclusion.  The film, unlike so many others these days, trusts its viewers along its dark and dreary ride.  Even though things snowball to an unthinkably horrific finale for those involved, the way Edgerton and company deliberately and patiently chronicle the journey towards that conclusion is ultimately enthralling.   

The story itself is delineated in classic film noir conventions: We have two deeply flawed and troubled characters that become attached through a forbidden love and affair that later segues into greed and gluttony that, as a result, greatly destroys the last remnants of safety and secrecy in their relationship.  THE SQUARE deals not only with the sin of adultery, but also how that misdeed creates greater misdeeds that eventually simmer to personal loss and catastrophe.  The characters desperately try to break free of these ever-snowballing series of doomed actions, but the more they try to squiggle free the more the metaphorical noose strangles them into submission.  They attempt to peruse a life of happiness and financial security, but they become more delusion and paranoid in the process.  Yet, no matter how fanatical they become making one misstep after another, they just keep making more missteps, until it fatefully leads to tragedy. 

These two characters in question are Ray (in a wonderfully grounded performance of vulnerable humility and ever-escalating anxiety and obsession by David Roberts) and Carla (the beautiful Claire van der Boom, exhibiting a natural physical grace and understated poise while harboring internalized feelings of unease and dread).  Both are married, but not to one another.  David cheats on what he sees as his dull and unadventurous wife (Lucy Bell) and finds that his middle-upper class suburban home life is suffocating him.  Carla, on the other hand, is cheating on her spouse that is far less ethically centered than David’s.  He is a local criminal named “Smithy” (Anthony Hayes, a coldly smug and eerily intimidating presence) that does not seem like a proper husband for any wife.  Ray and Carla rendezvous in secret to facilitate their sexual desires  - sometimes in their cars, other times in hotels – but the more clandestine time they spend together, the more they begin to realize that they need to make a very quick and clean break away from their home lives that they despise so that they can be together forever. 

Of course, one obstacle always seems to get nastily in the way of all adulterous couples wanting to secure freedom: money.  Carla, it seems, has the seemingly easy answer to their problems: her low rent crook of a hubbie has a rather large sum of loot that he thinks is well hidden in the house, but Carla knows of its existence, but she just can’t take it because she knows that Smithy would easily deduce that she was the culprit.  She feels that a plan is required and gets Ray to assist her.  Ray decides to hire a rather undignified criminal in his own right, Billy (Joel Edgerton, showing a real fiery nerve and hostile intensity) to secretly break into Carla’s house and set it on fire, but only after (a) Carla has taken the money away and (b) there is no one in the home.   

Unfortunately, a person very close to Smithy is in the home during the arson and is killed, which weighs heavily in Carla and Ray’s consciences.  Things begin to unravel even further with dreadful results: a shady business dealing that Ray participates in at work (he is a foreman for a construction site building a resort property) starts to deflate and add even more unwanted side effects on his ever-growing sense of paranoia.  Even worse, Ray begins to receive ominous threats from what he thinks is Billy, who is clearly upset and enraged that his undercover  “work” inadvertently killed a person, so it appears that he now he wants more money.  Without given up too much more, let’s just say that a spiral of suspicions leads to more violence and murder (it’s almost darkly comical how many people Ray unintentionally kills when they discover something about him) which all comes to a conclusion that is anything but tidy and happy. 

Roberts’ performance of Ray – which carries the emotional weight of the film – is crucial to its success.  He has to plausibly evoke a sense of swelling misery, dread, and sweaty fretfulness while attempting to maintain a composed sense of normalcy and decorum to his family, friends,  and co-workers.  This becomes, obviously enough, even more tricky with each new body that begins to pile up in Ray’s wake.  His tailspin of lust, greed, and mistrust leads to only more personal suffering for him and Carla and the compelling angle of THE SQUARE is that he is not immediately a figure of sympathy or understanding.  Ray is not a black and white protectionist that we easily root for: his actions are dubious and questionable and his disregard for human life and the sanctity of marriage keeps us at a distance.  However, the film is not about us securely and unconditionally rooting this man on to success; it’s more about showcasing the enthralling and oftentimes appalling downward spiral that he and Carla find themselves in.  THE SQUARE is almost delectably downbeat and nihilistic in this way as it revels in the train wreck that is this man’s life.  This tone and macabre sensibility is something the Coen Brothers would giddily appreciate, 

Edgerton’s direction as well is as first rate and accomplished as the performances.  He intuitively understands that all great thrillers are built upon the foundations of pacing and tone and building suspense with an understated, almost quietly foreboding style.  The look of the film is gritty, dirty, solemn, and washed out, which subtly reflects the angst, confusion, and pathos of its characters.  The texture and palette that Edgerton employs here is matched by the way he lets his camera linger on the events.  THE SQUARE is not ostentatiously stylized in a “look at what I can do” manner; instead, Edgerton has the crafty foresight to let his loose, yet systematically timed, camera moves and a less-is-more visual style to help foster the film’s unsettling mood.  The film becomes almost more psychologically richer and gripping as a result.  Few full-length directorial debuts demonstrate such a mature and regimented comprehension of what works and what doesn’t in the noir traditions. 

THE SQUARE teases and taunts audiences in ways that Hitchcock used to for how it lures them into its seedy and tragic story of deceit, betrayal, and a succession of really, really bad choices made by characters that you just know will not go unpunished.  There are many squirm-inducing moments in the film where you know that the motivations and actions by Ray and his lover will lead to no good at all, but, again, it’s their deplorable journey and their unavoidable downfalls that makes THE SQUARE such a hypnotically taut, intense, and mercilessly calculating thriller.  The film is made of elements that we have all seen before and in hundreds of other noirs, but the Edgerton Brothers demonstrate a similar level of perceptivity for the genre that usually only comes to more seasoned filmmakers in their prime.  THE SQUARE is a grisly, depressing, and exhaustive experience to sit through, but there is so much consummate skill underscoring it all that you come out joyously revering the effort, even after experiencing a finale that ends with a cruel and disparaging thump.  The film made me feel completely uneasy, which is to its esteemed credit.    

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