In Theaters: The Square

Movieline Score:

A sun-burnt addition to the growing line of distant noir descendants, The Square is more of a red-faced hustle through the genre's tropes than a cool-cheeked embodiment of the thing itself. The strain is certainly palpable in the script, a collaboration between actor Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner, and direction that veers in its examination of infidelity gone nastily awry between over-excited and overly deliberate. Director and former Australian stuntman Nash Edgerton (Joel's brother) makes a tense and yet drearily unsuspenseful mash of this domestic horror story, piling bad decisions and bad luck onto a body count and pressing out something he hopes will be accepted as a modern or meta- or maybe just mega-take on the old Postman Always Rings Twice paradigm.

"Are you trying to get me into trouble?" Carla (Claire van der Boom) asks her lover Ray (David Roberts) as she peels out of the lookout point where they meet in their cars to tryst. Both married and living across the river from one another in a small Australian town, they would seem an unlikely match: Carla is a pretty young woman who sweeps hair in a salon; Ray is in late middle age and manages a contracting business. Aside from regular bonking, the only plausible explanation for their abiding connection is not given but inferred: Carla's husband Smithy (Anthony Hayes) is the kind of guy who comes home with bloody bags of money; Ray's wife has a way of braying his name that could sterilize a stallion. Hardly a convincing couple, they are barely given time to get their pants up before Carla proposes stealing the mysterious bag of her husband's loot so they can run away together.

With nothing invested in the success -- moral or otherwise -- of the central couple, there is little to hang on to through the circumstantial shitstorm that Ray's capitulation to Carla sets off. Roberts is almost too good as the everyman: tall and lanky with appealing features pulled into a manly fret, he is a hapless rather than compelling presence; van der Boom's thin wash on the femme fatale doesn't come close to suggesting the necessary allure.

Of course plotting to burn down a house (the plan they devise to take the money without Carla's husband getting wise) tends to bring more interesting undesirables into the picture, and the first of these is Billy (Joel Edgerton), a firebug with a pint-sized sidekick named Lily (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence). Whether Lily is Billy's daughter or lover or in-house intern is left unclear, as are a host of other mitigating details, like whom Smithy hurt or killed to get his money, why a simple check of Billy's cell-phone log couldn't have cleared up a major misunderstanding after the arson plan, predictably, goes awry, and how no one would notice the massive grave that Ray winds up digging right in the middle of his construction site.


Better to just press on and get to the next catastrophe, apparently, and for schadenfreude freaks and straight-up masochists this might sound like a good time at the movies. For the rest of us it's just a lot of unpleasant things happening to a misbegotten couple who just want to shag their hearts out without a stick shift getting in the way. Which is not to say that Edgerton doesn't have a feel for a nice, tense set piece (Carla's discovery of that bloody bag while her husband is in the shower is terrific) or an eye for the shocking impalement of the human body.

But narratively The Square is more like a decagon drawn by a small and very excitable child. "One man points his dick in the wrong direction and here we are," one character says late in the film, setting up yet another of its feints. This is in fact a time-tested, perfectly serviceable noir premise, almost blissful in its simplicity. Plotted up beyond recognition here, and without the consolation of memorable characters or an intriguing central relationship, The Square's devil is indeed in its burden of details.