Movie review: ‘The Square’

Taut Australian thriller brings noir into the now

April 16, 2010, Austin American-Statesman  

In its steady tone and fatalistic drive, “The Square” has the effect of a guy pulling you by the ankle as he slides into the spewing pit of hell. It’s crackerjack noir that treads the style’s dread furrows with muscular skill while honoring its wit, that creeping, unsuspected streak of OMG fun.

The fun — grim, grim, grim — comes in the way of stomach-knotting twists and reversals, terrible things that befall the protagonist, who goes by the properly noir everyman name Raymond Yale (David Roberts, whose great, battered performance is one long trial). He’s in a swamp of trouble, and the more he splashes to get out, the faster he sinks.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Raymond, married, keeps a much younger mistress (Claire van der Boom), also married. Her husband’s a thug with bloody hands in dirty business. He’s stashed a duffel bag full of cash in the couple’s attic. She’s not supposed to know about it. When she spots it, she plans to steal it as her and Raymond’s ticket out of Dodge.

If only. Raymond’s been taking kickbacks at the construction site he manages. His contracting company is building a luxury resort hotel, the central square of which plays a critical role in the dramatic unfoldings, hence the film’s ominously blank title. When blackmail notes start coming his way, Raymond assumes they’re about the stolen bag of cash. Every move he makes from then on is predicated on this assumption.

Assumptions and blind spots — the hideous unknown — are sure-fire traps in noir. (As are human weaknesses, like greed and desire.) There are missteps, an accidental death here and there. As well-laid plans get blown by the cyclones of fate, Raymond’s life crumbles chunk by miserable chunk.

In so many movies of personal transformation, physical, psychological or emotional, a character will take a hard look at himself in the mirror to see what he’s become. When Raymond does it, he sees a man lashed and bruised. He sees a gargoyle in full, frozen grimace.

Director Nash Edgerton (who’s also an accomplished stuntman) brings an evolved instinct for tension and snap violence to this Australian affair. His visual storytelling, a command of the camera, is like whiplash.

He and his co-writers, including brother Joel Edgerton, are brash but meticulous. Tightly bolted into place, the pile-ons Raymond incurs feel natural. They happen the way noirish no-goodness always coils around its antihero victims — with vile inevitability.

Raymond’s not alone in all this, but his mistress is no femme fatale. She’s the other kind of noir black widow, the headlong dingbat who pushes her man until he agrees to do something dumb. Palpable homage permeates “The Square”; it’d be a cinch to diagram its similarities to “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

That’s a pretty good pedigree. Edgerton and his strong cast honor the past and burnish it with a sense of urgent realism. You feel the sweat, the abject despair — the downward yank of exhilarating tragedy.

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