A film review by Craig J. Koban August 31, 2010
2010, R, 116 mins.
2010, R, 116 mins.
Ray: David Roberts / Carla: Claire van der Boom / Smithy: Anthony
Hayes / Billy: 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.