Love and death Down Under
By Dan Kois
Friday, May 7, 2010
Consider, if you will, the bright, sunny creepiness of an Australian Christmas. It's summer down there, so December is subtropically hot, a time for holiday picnics, not cocoa by the hearth. In the small town outside Sydney that's the setting for Nash Edgerton's outstanding thriller "The Square," Santa rides a boat across a shark-infested river, Christmas tree lights cause fatal summertime fires and afternoon thunderstorms can wash evidence away -- or uncover it.
"You trying to get me into trouble?" a hairstylist, Carla, slyly asks her paramour at the beginning of "The Square." The two lovers, married to others, have just had an assignation under a bridge, and this bit of throwaway pillow talk soon comes true: Carla (Claire van der Boom) and construction supervisor Ray (David Roberts) get into the worst kind of trouble. It all starts with a bag of money, stashed in Carla's house by her husband, Greg (Anthony Hayes), a tow truck driver with some crooked friends. Carla and Ray hatch a plot to get their hands on that money and run away, and Ray hires a local small-timer, Billy (Joel Edgerton, the director's brother and one of the screenwriters of "The Square"), to burn Carla's house down.
As film noir fans might expect, the arson and robbery don't quite work out, and soon events are spinning wildly out of Carla and Ray's control. The lovers must juggle a body, a blackmailer, two suspicious spouses and the police.
One of the great pleasures of "The Square" -- in addition to its lived-in performances, sharp dialogue and elegant direction -- is the way it teases its audience. The screenplay carefully constructs a house of cards around its central couple, an increasingly desperate pair who just aren't cut out for the criminal life. The removal of but one card will cause Carla and Ray's entire plan to collapse -- but we don't know which card it will be. Greg, who soon figures out that his money didn't burn up in the fire? Billy's girlfriend, whose indecisiveness contributed to an innocent person's death?
That's not to mention Greg's creepy friend with the crush on Carla, or the amorous dogs who keep betraying the lovers, or the neighborhood girl who might have overheard them plotting, or the foreman who wonders why Ray is in such a hurry to cover the central square of his construction site with concrete. (And don't worry: "The Square" follows Chekhov's famous dictum that a shark mentioned in the first act must eat someone in the third, although whom it eats will still surprise you.)
Edgerton's direction is so assured that this avalanche of characters and entanglements never gets confusing. Instead, we become so acutely aware of what each person wants -- and what they have to lose, or gain, at any given moment -- that "The Square's" long, careful takes are packed with tension. And when violence comes, as it must, it arrives with unsettling speed and finality.
"The Square" isn't perfect; its plot hinges a bit too much on a dying cellphone battery, and its final showdown feels unsatisfying compared with the rich developments that led us there. But the debut feature of Nash and Joel Edgerton, Australian actors-turned-filmmakers, calls to mind another great darkly comic debut, the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple." Like that movie, "The Square" uses the trappings of film noir to explore a moral universe in which connivers and crooks are their own worst enemies. And like "Blood Simple," "The Square" suggests an exciting future for a pair of brothers with a dark view of pitiless fate.
Preceding "The Square" is Nash Edgerton's sharp short "Spider," a nine-minute exploration of character as fate that is guaranteed to make you scream twice. (It's on YouTube if you enjoy screaming in the comfort of your own home.) It's even better than "The Square," which is saying something.
Contains violence and cursing in Australian accents.