Review: The Square

“What happened to your hand?”   “Oh, just a bit of mischief.”

The Square could easily be an Australian cousin to Blood Simple, only the new film’s downward spiral of bad choices, worse reactions and overall subterfuge goes much deeper and affects more people than the early Coen brothers’ noir. The film feels deceptively fresh; made in 2008, it is only making it into U.S. theaters this month.

Starting with some quiet infidelity, The Square quickly ramps up to assault, robbery, arson, murder, extortion, blackmail and fraud, with a few accidental deaths along the way.  Ray (David Roberts) is a construction foreman trying to beat deadlines on a new resort hotel, and his moral compass is off by a few degrees: he’s accepted the kickback offered by a local cement supplier, and he’s having an affair with hairdresser Carla (Claire van der Boom).

Arriving home quietly after one of their dalliances, Carla sees husband Greg (Anthony Hayes) hiding a bag filled with blood-stained cash. She brings a troubling idea to Ray: take Greg’s money, cover up the robbery by burning down the house when no one is home, and run away together. But hasty plans make for messy mistakes, and soon arsonist Billy (Joel Edgerton, Smokin’ Aces) is setting up the “accidental” fire while someone is still in the house. Secrets, missed phone calls and poorly-timed coincidences make an already edgy bunch of people defensive and violent.

Locked into a quiet, loveless marriage, Ray’s affair with Carla seems more a distraction than a pledge for change. When Carla pointedly implies that he’s never going to commit, you get the feeling she’s right.  Ray is a man who doesn’t seem to be looking for an exit, but when he’s offered one doesn’t seem willing to accept it.  His marriage, his job, his station in life, all seem to be holding him in place, and the affair is a modest form of temporary escape. But for such a strapped-down man, every bad consequence that follows effortlessly grinds a little more of Ray’s soul away, until by the end he’s withered.

Writers Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner manage to neatly and cleverly tie off every loose end, leaving nothing unresolved.  Director Nash Edgerton keeps his tension palpable throughout, and as his short film Spider (shown in front of The Square) indicates, he enjoys the odd grueling bit of dark irony. Never before have cricket bats, Christmas lights, construction equipment and a shark been brought together in the name of uncluttered mayhem. The director has spent the better part of the last 20 years writing, directing, acting and even doing stunt work, so if the film feels tightly wound and effectively played, it’s because the man knows his business.

The Square is a taut and effective, smartly written film that makes no misstep or wrong choice, even though it is about a group of people who can do nothing but.  Slipping quietly into art houses the same weekend as mainstream behemoth Iron Man 2, it should not be overlooked.