We moviegoers can be such a-holes. It’s not enough to have so many of our own outrageous and deluded wishes fulfilled, to project our shabby selves into so many better-looking lives. Just as often, apparently, we need to sit back in the dark doing nothing while less self-possessed souls plod haplessly toward their own doom.
And so stuntman-turned-director Nash Edgerton sticks us in “The Square,” whose rigid geometry tempers a plentitude of twists into a few sharp, enclosing corners. From a story by Edgerton’s actor-turned-screenwriter brother Joel, who co-scripted with Matthew Dabner, “The Square” is a nifty little neo-noir thriller — and might even qualify as a horror movie too, when you add up its characters’ many unfortunate choices. These include adultery, arson, blackmail, homicide, and insufficient foresight to keep a cell phone battery charged in case of emergency. Their sum is the time-tested cinematic satisfaction to be had from seeing people dig themselves a hole, fill it with quicksand, and then wade right in. Or, less metaphorically, drop a corpse into that hole and then hasten to fill it with cement, while others suspiciously look on.
Ray (David Roberts) is a middle-class construction supervisor in a small Australian town, a man ostensibly too clean for the dirty work he oversees. But not for long. He’s already taking contractor kickbacks, and there is also the matter of Carla (Claire van der Boom), a woman Ray loves who is not his wife. Carla too is unhappily married, to a man (Anthony Hayes) with thuggish tendencies and a bag of cash hidden in their attic.
Can you see where this is going? Ray and Carla can’t, not quite. They just know they need it to go somewhere. They’re getting restless. She wants to pry him free from his barely adequate life, and he, like many lovelorn noir dupes before him, wants to keep her satisfied. But how much agency do they really have, how much willpower? Well, they do know a guy (Joel Edgerton) who’s handy with starting fires.
And you might begin to wonder: Do they not have Murphy’s Law in Australia? Is it just one of those things, like Christmas in summertime or toilets flushing clockwise? Rest assured, say the Edgertons, that for Ray and Carla things will go quite wrong indeed. Fate shall not be merciful. Perhaps an underlining of this point is the reason why their dogs also have a tryst going on, which doesn’t work out very well either. Anyway, “The Square” reminds us to consider the ominous implications of terms like “outback” and “down under,” the furtive goings on such places may accommodate. And in fact its sense of place is exceptional. We can feel the metabolism of this little town, and feel it change with the raising of Ray and Carla’s little hell.
Like the Coen brothers, to whom they’ve inevitably been compared, or Quentin Tarantino, the Edgertons seems to thrive on a streak of remorselessness. It makes for energetic filmmaking and perhaps also for some moral concern. In some theaters, “The Square” has screened with their short film “Spider,” another exercise in pitilessness and also a showcase for Nash Edgerton’s skill with stunts. The evidence of these two films suggests a bright future full of creative self-determination for the brothers, even if it also disconcertingly suggests such blessings will remain unavailable to their female characters in particular.
In any case, they have what it takes to keep us watching. “The Square” is dark and quiet and coolly disciplined, with rigorous editing of script and image alike, characters drawn just clearly enough to sparkle in their murky milieu, and music cues used just sparingly enough to work. There is also what seems like as right a ratio of accidental and intentional deaths as a movie can have. The bottom line, then, is that it gives us a-holes what we really want.