Aussie Noir Crackles

Filmmaking duo prove deserving heirs to the Coen Brothers

Kicking off with a wicked little short film called Spider, sibling filmmakers Nash and Joel Edgerton announce their ability to shock and prepare you for the even-more-shocking main event. The Square is a masterfully conceived and executed neo-noir from a couple of promising newcomers possessing keen ideas about weaving suspense with thematic momentum. This is one very satisfying genre piece to share with your suspense-loving friends.

The story revolves around Ray and Carla, an adulterous couple (well-played by David Roberts and Claire van der Boom). Between Christmas and New Year’s, Carla arranges for Ray to steal the cash from her criminal husband’s latest heist so she and Ray can abandon their middle-class suburban existence forever.

It’s refreshing to see the oft-hackneyed neo-noir genre—witness the recent Don McKay—done with such precision and emotional involvement. Adultery is a common staple of the genre, and it’s a tricky sin with which to gain audience empathy. Roberts’ everyman appeal as the story’s volatile lynchpin makes him infinitely intriguing to watch. When Roberts’ character Ray hires a local arsonist (played by co-writer Joel Edgerton), you can’t help but hope that somehow things land a little in his favor.

The cuckolded side of the marital equation features Anthony Hayes as Greg “Smithy” Smith, the mullet-wearing husband to the woman that Ray desperately wants to spend his life with. There’s a sardonic comedy to Greg’s being that makes his possession of a large amount of cash an especially ridiculous prize for exploitation.

The story profits from the filmmakers’ meticulous use of proximity in its locations, which figure explicitly into the drum-tight narrative. Ray’s house is across a lake from Carla’s home, and his boy dog can’t help but swim across to visit Carla’s bitch; the canine romantic symmetry is one of those light touches that exemplifies the film’s involuntary fascination with detail.

Although it might not contain the heavy shadows of the long-passed film noir era, the influence of Mother Nature is an ever-present threat that sweeps you up in its unpredictability. Heavy rain plays an important role in forcing Ray to expose the fraying edges of his loosening personality. Like William H. Macy’s character in the Coen brothers’ Fargo, he puts himself in a jam where every decision is 10 times worse than the one before.

Neo-noir is all about watching people actively pick and poke at their Achilles Heel as if it were their only hope for salvation. In the case of this adulterous couple, their imagined sense of emotional loyalty takes a backseat to greed. An anonymous blackmail demand presents an especially juicy twist to a story with almost as many reversals as the Dahl Brothers’ Red Rock West, and a gut-wrenching climax that’s just as surprising as the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple.

In cinema, there’s nothing new under the sun, but you’ll recognize the artistic creativity and expert filmic craftsmanship the Edgerton brothers apply in twisting the suspense tighter and tighter toward an inevitable ending where all debts are paid. Unlike Avatar, The Square is the kind of movie you could see twice, and not feel the least bit of guilt.