'The Square' Familiar, Chaotic; Still Furiously Engaging

Directed by: Nash Edgerton, Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: B

Reminiscent of the "serious side" of The Coen Brothers' filmmaking, most especially their neo-noir crime flick Blood Simple, Australian import The Square constructs a thriller that's busting at the seams with edgy mood, intriguing performances, and a vein of suspense that's about as relentless as I've seen in a contemporary film of its type. Director Nash Edgerton, mostly limited to short films over the past decade, uses his experience well by making every second count in his feature-length debut, written by his actor brother Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner. Even though they navigate all the furiously moving pieces with a surgical eye, the film suffers from a lopsided number of dubious fluke events in the narrative that detract from an otherwise fierce, polished picture.

The Square follows Raymond (David Roberts), a mostly-honest contractor wrapped up in an unsatisfying marriage, and his emotion-driven affair with Carla (Claire van der Boom), a young hairdresser trapped in a relationship with her criminal husband, Smithy (Anthony Hayes). The affair clearly stretches beyond the point of occasional rendezvous in cars and hotels, as the pair often ponder the idea of leaving their significant others. Alas, they don't have the capital to do so, until Carla accidentally sees her husband stashing a duffel bag full of money away in their home. With her husband unaware that she knows about the bag, Carla cooks up a scheme with Raymond that'll give them a way to run away with the dirty money, without her husband knowing that they took it. But it requires them to seek out a bit of illegal activity (where Joel Edgerton himself pops into the picture) and some starting cash that Raymond has to collect, which, conveniently, wheels were already in motion for him to receive a healthy multi-thousand dollar kickback at his work.

From the start, it's clear that the Edgerton brothers aim for a forcefully dark tone with The Square, and the nerve it generates pushes well beyond palpable boundaries. After gracefully constructing the relationship between Raymond and Carla into a pair that we can, in ways, "root for", it takes a sharp turn into a hornet's nest that can essentially be looked at as Murphy's Law in practice, giving nearly every conversation in the film nerve-searing ferocity and every action an impending sense of doom. Chilly, emotionally-starved cinematography capture the couple's scheming, blanketing moments like an outdoor Christmas candle service with an ominous tone. While the setup isn't novel, a take-the-money-and-run plot that doesn't go according to plan, the integrity behind this persistent anxiety masks a lack of innovation. The film's manner couldn't be more deftly realized.

As cunning as the tension can be in The Square as the events unfold, it has to combat against the script's second-rate grasp on practicality within its many twists and shock-value turns. Edgerton's film overuses happenstance, especially when it comes to the handful of deaths that occur. Don't get me wrong: executing surprise fatalities in otherwise subdued thrillers can be shockingly satisfying. However, when one oopsie-daisy death piles up after another, the lack of realism behind this otherwise pragmatic thriller comes close to watering down its potency. Sure, accidents will happen amid fast-paced scheming, blackmail, erratic driving, and scenes at a construction site, but their frequency here -- and the convenience of their occurrence -- leaves a lingering sense of frustration. Even with unflinching performances from the cast as a whole, it's difficult to overlook these creative but impractical man-made mistakes in such a realistic environment.

This skepticism even permeates the film's initial gut-wrenching twist, where both forgotten and dying cellphones mix with the timing of a quick house visit to create what'll become the two main characters' karmic backlash -- and a central gloomy theme. Maybe that's being a little rough on Edgerton's thriller, focusing on the bumps in the road that take away from its common sense, but it's only because there's so much potential stirring around in the film that it's a downer to see it being forced to drag around the baggage of suspended belief. One might make a case that the twists in logic add something of a darkly comical flare to the narrative, or even as an onslaight of visceral negativity that adds to the cautionary elements in the film -- you know, of the "don't cheat", "don't employ those whom you feel bad for employing" variety -- but those possibilities simply don't fit.

Is the process of watching all this collapsing onto Raymond and Carla still a gripping affair? Absolutely, in the same vein as keeping your eyes locked on an uncontrollable nightmare of sorts playing out on-screen. Tense performances from the entire cast certainly help in that regard, even if the primary characters are deliberately unlikable from top to bottom. This is especially true for David Roberts, recognizable as the gruff hovercraft captain Roland from The Matrix: Reloaded and Revolutions, who crafts Raymond into an anti-hero full of deep veracity. Matched with the raw prowess powering the storyline and superb filmmaking, the outrageous situations that fill The Square are handled with enough of an exhilarating, straight-faced edge to nearly legitimize their absurdity. Though it doesn't quite achieve that and suffers from avoidable flaws, it certainly still etches out a place for the writer/director duo as a force to be reckoned with in their upcoming features, especially in the crime thriller genre.This is the summary


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