The Square
Reviewed in August 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Nash Edgerton. Cast: David Roberts, Claire van der Boom, Anthony Hayes, Joel Edgerton, Brendan Donoghue, Peter Phelps, Hanna Mangan-Lawrence, Kieran Darcy-Smith, Damon Herriman, Bill Hunter, Lucy Bell, Eliza Logan, Paul Caesar, Lisa Bailey, Julian Morrow. Screenplay: Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner (based on an original screen story by Joel Edgerton).
Twitter Capsule: Edgerton brothers start with firm if modest foundation, but what they build on it gets progressively shakier, even silly

Photo © 2009 Film Finance Corporation Australia/New South Wales
Film and Television Office/Blue-Tongue Films, © 2010 Apparition
This Aussie crime thriller starts promisingly with a slow crane shot down to two cars on some muddy shore of some dismal river on a gray day. We come to find that one car contains an adulterous couple, Ray (David Roberts) and Carla (Claire van der Boom), in the midst of what turns out to be their one satisfying moment over the next two hours—also, sadly, the only moment where the audience has even the slimmest sense of a detectable bond between them. The other car houses the two dogs, a large mutt and a quivering poodle, whom Ray and Carla have clearly used as alibis for this assignation. These animals are perched at the window of their vehicle, either impatient for the tryst to conclude or else enjoying the ringside view. As The Square gets going, this blend of archetypal, Postman Always Rings Twice setup and dryly funny details augurs a promising exercise in cool-hearted scene construction. You never give up hope on the director, Nash Edgerton, or his brother and principal screenwriter, the noted young actor Joel Edgerton, who appears here as an arsonist for hire, one of eight or ten principal characters in the script's self-consciously ornate narrative architecture. From such wormy plotting to some evocative throwaways (a kid hiding behind a fridge, a frantic Santa, a desperate attempt to identify handwriting), from its strong sense of working life on a construction site to its increasingly rare winks of absurd humor (shark attack!), The Square gets plenty of early elements in place to promise something more special than it ultimately becomes.

One wishes the Edgertons well on their next endeavor. An intimation of talent impresses itself on the viewer even when the meter-reading on discipline and execution starts to dip precipitously. Which is to say, The Square is much too proud of its convoluted story and its escalating series of threats and coincidences, including impulsive decisions that are foolhardy even by the standards of a reckless moment. The characters, played with none of the rich, terse strength of Animal Kingdom (whose cast overlaps with this one), start sloughing off any vestige of specificity, diminishing down into blank pawns for the screenplay's tactics of "surprising" us with cheap contrivance. The sonic reveal of a baby in a backseat and the circular steadicam shot that floridly reveals a dangerous intruder at an ill-timed moment are two, late-arriving symptoms of how The Square seems too eager to load up on threadbare gimmicks, narrative or formal, in order to drum up some tension that simply isn't there, and nowhere less so than between the illicit lovers whose Big Dumb Plan catalyzes every step of this soapy suspenser. The filmmakers' inability to animate or to see into their female characters is a plaguing problem. The arsonist's girlfriend is cast unconvincingly young and played rather fussily as tongue-tied and frightened, more to open new windows for mishap and conflict than to facilitate credible characterization. Closer to the film's center, no one seems to notice that when Carla protests that "If we don't leave soon, somethin's gonna happen, I know it," plenty of awful things have already happened, and that her feelings about them are woefully unilluminated. Is this just lame screenwriting, or is Carla really so smothered by self-protective fear that she's capable of such a head-in-the-sand statement? Only the Shadow knows. Not that Ray, the main character, is all that legible, either. Even when the filmmakers finally seem willing to disclose some violent urge or susceptibility to rottenness within him, they stumble over themselves protecting him from seeming too much the villain, even if it means putting random objects in his way that force him, by scapegoating logic, to do what he was on the verge of doing anyway, under his own stressed-out volition. You get the same narrative upshot, but minus any whit of a character being revealed.

The Square demonstrates some palpable but ill-used knacks for clammy suspense and mordant asides, and I expect that the American arthouse audience who made the preposterous Tell No One a profit-maker won't balk at the over-egged acting and writing of this one, either. But someone ought to have detected the odor of desperation and the literal overkill of moralizing comeuppance that overtakes the final half-hour. Even a strong first impression can't survive such a flailing resolution. The Square ends up as agitatedly anti-adultery as Fatal Attraction was, but with none of the erotic heat or psychological intensity. "One man points his dick in the wrong direction, and here we are," someone intones toward the finale. Trouble was, I felt less confident by the end than I was at the beginning about where, in fact, we were, and even less clear about the people with whom I'd gotten stuck there. Grade: C

VOR: (1)   (What is this?)
The Square has enough basic filmmaking mettle and diverting intrigue that you can't fairly call it bad; I entertained a C+ and may wind up there again as the days pass. But the real disappointment is how the movie progressively abjures any sense of novelty or urgency; as the plot thickens, its sense of integrity and purpose collapses. I doubt many viewers would regret watching The Square, but there are way too many films that follow similar boilerplates, with much more to recommend them.

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