While its story is too stock and its central relationship too bland to enable it to achieve knockout status, “The Square” is a stylishly entertaining and strikingly dark look at the consequences of behaving basely, a comedy-laced tragedy both accessible and artful.
Demonstrating navigational agility, a respect for tradition, and a bent for the outrageous, first-time feature director Nash Edgerton has crafted a worthy suspenser that both exploits and transcends standard noir stories involving body heat and bags of money.
Written by brother Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner, this Australian drama transpires in a humdrum suburb where the down-under Yuletide sunshine can’t quite mask the moral slippage beneath.
The tone is a mix of classic noir (“Double Indemnity” comes to mind), Coen-style creepiness, and Edgerton’s own brand of old-fashioned storytelling and macabre seasoning.
Married, middle-aged Ray (David Roberts) receives kickbacks on the job and regularly enjoys adulterous rendezvous with young beautician Carla (Claire van der Boom) as their amorous dogs, in a running bit with which Edgerton parallels canine and human paths, look on.
Ray’s thicket intensifies when Carla’s thug husband, Smithy (Anthony Hayes), brings home a satchel of cash, prompting Carla, femme-fatale style, to persuade Ray to join her in a scheme to steal the dough and leave town.
The plan, which also involves arsonist Billy (played by Joel Edgerton), misfires disastrously. Soon, Ray is receiving blackmail letters and dealing with corpses.
That’s hardly original stuff, and the dynamics of the two lovers won’t wow you either. Neither Ray nor Carla seems passionate or desperate enough to behave so criminally.
Yet, between the predicable destination points, Edgerton serves up a wealth of small, sometimes horrific, moments that are nuggets. At the same time, he steers the film adeptly and affirms the appeal of its noir ingredients.
The result is a boldly grim, often funny and constantly tense twister about crime and comeuppance.
A former stuntman, Edgerton excels with tricks, and regardless of whether his characters’ misfortunes (an impaling included) are cosmic or coincidental, they make for some stellar visual hits.
If he sometimes goes wrong with the horror, Edgerton, crucially, delivers humanity, assisted by, in particular, Roberts. Compensating for his lack of intensity, the actor gives his character an effective tainted-Everyman quality.
Basically, Ray could be you, the movie seems to be saying.
A bonus comes with this film, in the form of “Spider,” a wickedly comic nine-minute short film directed by Edgerton.
The Square - 3 stars
Starring David Roberts, Claire van der Boom, Joel Edgerton, Anthony Hayes
Written by Joel Edgerton, Matthew Dabner
Directed by Nash Edgerton
Running time 1 hour 41 minutes