Carla Smith (Claire van der Boom) is through waiting for her lover, Ray Yale (David Roberts, "Fool's Gold"), to leave his wife and run away with her. When she spies her husband Greg (Anthony Hayes, "Look Both Ways") hiding a satchel of cash, she decides that they should steal it and burn her house down to hide the theft. Ray doesn't want to get involved in criminal activity, even though he is already, having engineered a $40K kickback from cement pourer Barney (Kieran Darcy-Smith, "The Cave") at the honeymoon resort construction job he is managing. But her urgency gets to him and Ray agrees, hiring an arsonist with some of that kickback cash. That job has unforeseen complications, however, as Ray finds himself at the precipice of a steep downward spiral in "The Square."
This nasty little Australian film noir comes from brothers Joel (writer with Matthew Dabner, character of Billy) and Nash Edgerton (director) who clearly have a gift for tricky plotting and sudden surprises. While not as stylish as the Coen Brothers' debut "Blood Simple," "The Square" nonetheless exhibits great intelligence in setting up a complex structure only to unravel it without telegraphing its third act spoilers. The New South Wales neighborhood of Haven Cove, where blue collar homes and trailer parks exist across the river from more middle class houses, is a vibrant setting that personifies its characters and offers a surface sense of security beneath which hidden dangers lurk.
We're introduced to the cheating couple having an assignation in Carla's car, parked alongside the river. Their dogs, a boxer and bison frise, watch from Ray's car parked alongside (keep an eye on these dogs as their relationship foreshadows that of Ray and Carla in one of the film's more inspired ideas). Shortly after the couple's initial plot goes horribly, tragically wrong, Ray begins receiving blackmail notes in Christmas cards. Carla thinks a friend of her husband's, creepy mechanic Leonard Long (Brendan Donoghue), has seen them together and so Ray goes investigating. He discovers Leonard's the guy who stole a generator from his site, but Leonard catches him spying. Ray digs himself into a deeper and deeper hole, just like the one he digs that night, but every effort to get his concrete pad poured over it (one of the two squares alluded to by the title - the other being the ceiling panel Greg moved to hide his money) is upended.
'Talk about dusting off police procedure,' says Sergeant Gary Miles (Paul Caesar) when he comes to talk to Ray about Leonard's disappearance, little knowing that Ray is the guy who has sparked a chain of mayhem in Haven Cove. Meanwhile Ray's construction foreman Jake (Peter Phelps) is getting suspicious about Ray's jittery and unreasonable behavior, Greg's partner in crime Eddie (Damon Herrima, TV's "Justified") focuses his friend's suspicions back on his wife and Billy the arsonist (screenwriter Joel Edgerton, "Kinky Boots," "Smokin' Aces") gets antsy when he finds out Ray's being blackmailed.
And the final act of "The Square" is a 1-2-3 knockout punch that few will see coming due to the impeccably tight writing combined with stunning sleight of hand. There are no red herrings here, every twist has been laid out before us, every pitfall signalled sometimes in the most innocent of transactions (one is as laugh out loud startling as it is horrifying while we wait to see how Ray will roll with it). The subtle incorporation of many moments, like the unexplored avenue of Martha Yale (Lucy Bell) quietly reacting as she notes first Carla, then Ray, leave a secluded area at a party, is one of the things that make "The Square" so very satisfying.
There is a very large cast here and all the actors are organically of this unique place. Unfortunately, the film's hero, as played by David Roberts, doesn't show a lot of range - he goes from fretful to seriously on edge but there isn't much display of love or lust - the affair simply is.
Cinematography by Brad Shield ("Miracle Fish"), while shot in 35mm, looks 16, too grainy and muddy by far, although compositions are fine and there are a couple of 'how did they do that' shots like the long view of Carla and Greg's house on fire as it slowly goes out in a night to day transition or the freaky underground imaginings of Ray's nightmares. Francois Tetaz ("Wolf Creek") score contains echoes of the spirit of Carter Burwell's work for "Blood Simple."
"The Square" isn't the most captivating of film titles, but this one really delivers. It will keep you guessing right until the very end. The Edgertons, who have made a number of short films ("Spider," which screened before this film, is a hoot), have given themselves a tough act to follow. Here's hoping that they're up to it.
Raymond and Carla have been having a torrid affair for some time. He has promised time and again that he would leave his wife for her, but money, or the lack of it, has thwarted such plans. Until, that is, one day when Carla dumps a pile of money in Raymond’s lap. She tells him that it is just a small part of the ill-gotten gains stashed by her low-level mobster husband Greg (Anthony Hayes). They come up with a plan – steal the money and burn down the house to cover up the theft. Things quickly go awry, though, and the simple plan will spiral down toward disaster in “The Square.”
Australian stunt man Nash Edgerton makes his feature debut and it is a dilly. As things start out, the most shocking things about “The Square” is Ray and Carla’s affair, each cuckolding their spouses, and some secret kickbacks that Ray garners from the subcontractors working for him on a construction site. When Carla finds Gregg’s stash of cash and brings some of it to Ray, it is like Eve offering the forbidden fruit to Adam. As they hatch their scheme, hiring an arsonist and arranging for the fire when they are sure the house will be empty, you get a knot in the pit of your stomach. Something is going to go wrong, you are sure, but you will not seeing any of the punches that Edgerton and co-writer David Michod throw at us.
Nothing is as expected throughout “The Square” and the filmmakers’ slight of hand takes no cheap shots. The marvelous script is a work of art and its execution is nothing short of phenomenal for a tyro director. It has taken a couple of years for this intelligent little gem to reach our shores but it is worth the wait. I give it an A-.
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