The Square -- Film Review
As in James M. Cain's best stories, illicit love drags a disappointed, unexceptional man to dark doings in "The Square," an ultra-amplified exercise in noir. There's no question that director Nash Edgerton knows how to ratchet up the tension and create an atmosphere of dread. What's missing, in this tale of an adulterous couple in the sunny Sydney suburbs, is a compelling sexual engine to spark the narrative machine. Ultimately more concerned with plot mechanics than character, the film succumbs to an overload of twists.
It's nonetheless a well-made and entertaining descent into a black-comic hell. The Aussie film, which opens April 9 in Los Angeles and New York, will lure fans of sharp thrillers and serve as an impressive calling card for stuntman-turned-filmmaker Nash Edgerton.
Trysting in parked cars and hotel rooms, construction supervisor Ray (the excellent David Roberts) and his much younger hairdresser neighbor Carla (Claire van der Boom) talk of escaping their empty marriages. She challenges him to make good on that talk after discovering the proceeds of criminal dealings of her husband (Anthony Hayes). Sounding the death knell of a long lineage of doomed lovers, she tells Ray, "This is our chance," after describing the loot that will set them free: "It's cash -- it can't be decent."
The script by Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner makes smart use of such genre-steeped dialogue, paying homage to classic noir without abandoning contemporary realism. A simple plan involving arson quickly unfolds, and the central couple, who feel less central to the action as it proceeds, seal the deal with a reckless kiss at Carla's front door. Her dog keeps fording the narrow river to visit Ray's pup, a fine and unsettling reminder that things will not go smoothly.
Every step forward is a further unraveling, each linchpin a loose wire. As Billy, who capitalizes on his pyromania as an arsonist-for-hire, screenwriter Edgerton (the director's brother) delivers the right quotient of menace, and Hanna Mangan-Lawrence spells trouble from the get-go as his cowed young accomplice. After the plan is fatally botched, Ray receives blackmail notes, and the paranoia escalates. In a terrific paradox, he's overseeing the construction of an idyllic waterside resort as he races to stay ahead of unseen forces closing in on him.
With his mouth pulled down in a perpetual scowl, Roberts is a riveting embodiment of an unassuming man driven to extremes and determined to keep going, though he knows that no good will come of it. Van der Boom's Carla, however, is a femme fatale in function only, never registering as the dangerous and seductive pulse of the story. In supporting roles as Ray's colleagues, Peter Phelps, Kieran Darcy-Smith and Brendan Donoghue fit the bill, but the script leaves their characters nebulous except as plot-point catalysts.
Director Edgerton knows how to land shocking blows, and he makes the most of the disconnect between setting and state of mind, particularly in a Christmas picnic scene. Camerawork, editing and music are aces, and the outstanding sound design by Sam Petty is a crucial element in creating a web of foreboding.
The director's taut nine-minute "Spider," which will screen before "Square" in theaters and which is referenced in the feature with a sight gag, sets the dark comic tone as a couple's makeup scene goes gruesomely awry.
Opens: Friday, April 9 (Apparition)
Production: Apparition and Screen Australia in association with the New South Wales Film and Television Office present a Film Deport production in Association with Blue-Tongue Films
Cast: David Roberts, Claire van der Boom, Joel Edgerton, Anthony Hayes, Peter Phelps, Bill Hunter, Hanna Mangan-Lawrence, Kieran Darcy-Smith, Brendan Donoghue
Director: Nash Edgerton
Screenwriters: Joel Edgerton, Matthew Dabner
Story by Joel Edgerton
Executive producers: Nash Edgerton, Joel Edgerton, Matthew Dabner
Producer: Louise Smith
Director of photography: Brad Shield
Additional director of photography: Jens Fischer
Production designer: Elizabeth Mary Moore
Music: Francois Tetaz
Costume designer: Sally Sharpe
Sound designer: Sam Petty
Editors: Luke Doolan, Nash Edgerton
MPAA rating: R, 104 minutes