Over recent years, the film noir genre has largely served as a reference point for filmmakers, who dress up their movies with snappy dialogue and/or complex, violent stories but neglect the genre’s bleakness. In this modern era, the Coen Brothers are often credited as the life support system for classic noir, but the Coens appear to have serious competition in the form of Australian filmmaker and stuntman Nash Edgerton, whose feature debut, The Square, is a brilliantly twisty, gritty contemporary film noir. Nominated for seven Australian Film Institute Awards (including Best Film, Best Direction and Best Original Screenplay), The Square is a film noir in the classic mould given a distinctly modern flavor. Screenwriters Joel Edgerton (Nash’s brother) and Matthew Dabner have constructed the film using several familiar elements: A decent man, the temptation of a young woman, and the dream of living happily ever after away from the monotony of married life.
Like all film noirs, The Square begins with a simple bad decision. Like most of the bad decisions in the genre, it involves a large amount of cash. The principals are lured to said cash, and this leads to horrifying ramifications. In this particular instance, it’s young Carla (van der Boom) who finds the bag of money, which was poorly hidden in the attic crawlspace of her house by her shady slob of a husband Smithy (Hayes). Carla has been having an affair with her neighbor Ray (Roberts) for an unspecified amount of time, and she perceives the money as a way out of her marriage. In order for the money to disappear without Smithy noticing, Ray hires an arsonist (Edgerton) to burn down Carla’s home. But, of course, it’s never that easy, and the theft sets off an unfortunate series of steps that sees Ray, Carla, Smithy, the arsonist, and many others get caught up in a web of murder and deceit.
The title of the movie can be interpreted in several ways. In one reading, it describes Ray; the quiet, straitlaced construction site supervisor. The title also describes the as-yet-unbuilt concrete plaza at the centre of Ray’s current worksite, while it could also be interpreted as describing Ray’s romantic life as well (which is more complicated than a mere love triangle).
Similar to the films of the Coen Brothers (Fargo, Blood Simple), The Square contains a certain dark humor, with the plan going so terribly awry that it becomes comical. A nightmarish quality remains, though, enhanced by the grim portrayals of the desperate characters who believe they can still salvage this mess. One of the film’s myriad pleasures is the way it teases viewers. Edgerton and Dabner’s script constructs a house of cards around the increasingly desperate leads who aren’t cut out for criminal life. If one card was to be removed, the entire plan would collapse — but there are so many cards that it’s difficult to tell which will be pulled out. It’s clear the writers knew noir very well, with the plotting reminiscent of classics like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, as well as more contemporary films like A Simple Plan. Yet, the plot is given a fresh new spin, and transplanted into the suburbs of Sydney, Australia without feeling overly derivative. Even better, this micro-budget Aussie pic could genuinely compete with the masters of the genre.
Additionally, The Square is a potent, twist-laden tension generator, with the filmmakers gleefully upping the ante for Ray at every turn in ways that seem almost insurmountable. Brad Shield, the talented cinematographer, was able to turn the string of murders into breathtaking, nail-biting set-pieces. With Shield’s skilful photography and Nash’s competent direction, the film is blessed with a gloriously gritty look, conveying a sense of dread that ensures a viewer will never believe any of the characters will survive unscathed. In fact, in a seemingly random subplot involving two dogs, there’s an interesting sense of dark humor that underlines the noir-esque theme of love working out for none of the characters.
A large amount of the film’s success can be attributed to the exceptional performance of David Roberts as Ray. He’s a little-known actor in his home country of Australia, and thus there’s little star power in The Square, but this is a classic case of choosing the correct actor for the part rather than choosing a big-name star for the sake of box office returns. Alongside Roberts, the gorgeous Claire van der Boom is never short of convincing, and is guaranteed to hold any male viewer’s attention. Co-writer Joel Edgerton (already a recognized actor, having starred in Smokin’ Aces, two of the Star Wars prequels, Ned Kelly and King Arthur) also delivers a frightening, jittery performance as the unstable Billy. The remainder of the cast, meanwhile, are all superb in their respective roles (The Chaser‘s Julian Morrow even has a small part).
Marred only by a rushed climax and an underwritten screenplay (in particular, Ray’s marriage is severely underdeveloped), The Square is the type of quality movie that’s a rarity in the Australian filmmaking climate. It’s small in scope, yet rich in atmosphere, tension, story and character. It’s also ridiculously intense, gripping and filled with twists. A crackerjack thriller and a trip into Down Under noir hell, this is a sensational feature debut for the Nash Edgerton.