February 16, 2011

For the Love of Film (Noir): The Square

This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. This year's worthy cause is to help restore Cy Endfield's 1950 film noir The Sound of Fury, starring Lloyd Bridges. Learn more about the cause at the Film Noir Foundation. Click here to donate directly. 

"One man points his dick in the wrong direction and here we are." 
--Billy (Joel Edgerton), The Square

The Square, the feature debut of short film director Nash Edgerton, is a tense and nervy, sprawling Australian neo-noir about guilt, fault and the bloody, unintentional consequences of lust and greed. In other words, classic film noir. The film debuted in Australia in 2008 but only received an American release last April. Although it's since been eclipsed by that other Australian crime epic Animal Kingdom, The Square deserves a look, especially from devotees of modern noir stories. 
The film concerns Ray Yale (David Roberts), a man in the middle years of his life who's in the midst of a steamy affair with his much young neighbor Carla (Claire van der Bloom). They live in the small harbor town of Haven Cove which is split down the middle by a river where it's rumored sharks swim up from the ocean. No symbolism there. Despite the rumors of pet-eating sharks, Ray and Carla are doing pretty well, meeting for clandestine liaisons under the guise of walking their dogs and fooling their seemingly ignorant spouses Martha (Lucy Bell) and Greg (Anthony Hayes). But like any doomed philandering couple, Ray and Carla are looking for a way to run away together and that opportunity presents itself when Carla discovers a bag full of cash stashed by her husband in their attic. 

Greg, tattooed, potbellied and sporting an unfortunate mullet, is some kind of crook, running a scheme with his drinking buddies. Despite Greg's general air of danger, Carla convinces Ray to hire a thug named Billy (Joel Edgerton of Animal Kingdom, this film's co-writer and the director's brother) to steal the money while Greg is away and burn down the house to hide the evidence. So far, so good. The complications arise (and there are many) because in the world of The Square, everyone is playing an angle--and a sinister one at that. In addition to the snatch and grab job devised by Carla, Ray is also working on a kickback at his job as a general contractor building a honeymoon resort. See, Ray was working on the down-low, promising the building rights to a specific contractor by a set time, earning $40,000 in escape money to surprise Carla. Of course, now he's got two fish on the line and all that's stopping him is some simple fraud, arson, and embezzlement. Cake. What's that line about "mo' money"? 

The Square's labyrinthine, multi-character complications are chief among its pleasures, especially within a story that's ostensibly a twisted love triangle. But Edgerton's preoccupation is with that extra side of the triangle--the "innocent" victims of Ray and Carla's lecherous ambitions. Edgerton's camera metes out information about character motivations and desires with nimble ease. Fluid pans survey rooms, sweep past doors, revealing their openness and the connectivity between characters who are scheming against each other even as they occupy the same space. 

An early scene reveals Carla and Greg's machinations. Greg is stashing the money when Carla come home. He quickly closes the door to the laundry room, collects himself and emerges deflecting Carla's questions, telling her he's going to hop in the shower. The scene then shifts as Carla investigates the attic (the square panel in the ceiling providing the film's title one of its many possible meanings). In the first shot above, Carla listens for Greg who, in the shower, is listening for Carla; although we don't see him, we know his thoughts. Carla hurriedly finishes investigating the attic just in time for Greg to finish his shower and casually return to the scene of his crime. 

In a later scene at their apartment, Greg and his drinking buddies get together for a game of poker. Edgerton employs a mobile camera in a shot that spins around the room, encompassing all the characters in a single take. This an overused device in film, usually used when the director doesn't know how to capture a multi-character scene or in a misplaced attempt to create action and movement. In this case, however, it's a powerful move that speaks to the economy and thoughtfulness of the filmmaking. We start on Carla who is in the rear of the frame, in the kitchen preparing food for the boys (at her husband's insistence); we then pan to the boys, seating around the table; then to Leonard (Brendan Donoghue), a stringy, meth head-looking dude who's obviously part of Greg's criminal outfit but also works with Ray at the construction site. As the camera pans past Leonard, we take on his point of view as he focuses on Carla. Donoghue's hand (see above) forms a kind of "iris effect," further narrowing our focus and allying us with Leonard's lustful gaze. The camera then pans past Leonard and another cohort before landing on Greg, whose gaze is chillingly fixed on Leonard, memorizing every detail of his designs on his wife. Neither Leonard nor Carla notice Greg's noticing. The scene is simple but effective, ratcheting up the tension which will inevitable boil over in bloodshed and establishing character motivations that won't pay off till much later. 

The film displays an adept balance between subjective POV for all its characters, not just Ray, and does more with pans through geographic space than a normal movie, or even a normal noir, would dare. He exploits familiar visual grammar to its maximum effect to thrilling and surprising ends. The result is a taunt, white-knuckle film that merges from suspense to mystery even as we're aware of the trajectory of the doomed noir hero. The Square is a subtly visual film but Edgerton is masterful in his use of the simplest camera moves--pans, long takes, point of view shots--to convey character desire. Every character moves like a shark, circling its prey, intent on the hunt but wary of competition for kill. 

There's a lot more to parse in The Square, which although not a perfect film (it occasionally careens into melodrama as the plots and characters crash into each other with increasingly violent abandon), is an extremely engrossing example of classic noir tropes. Unfortunately, to do so would require revealing more of its twists than is probably proper, approaching spoiler territory that would diminish the enjoyment of the picture. 

I will say, it reminded me a lot of two other neo-noirs: Bound (mostly in its fluid camera work and sex/power dynamics) and Blood Simple. It borrows rather shamelessly from the Coen brothers' debut both in its plot and in its relentlessly sadistic treatment of its main characters. Edgerton's film has its share of bleak humor, though it's more muted than the Coens' characteristic ridiculousness. Not even the Coens treat their hapless characters with this much cruelty, as the incompetence, bad luck, bad mojo, and cosmic vengeance crescendos to a bloody climax. Every one of Ray's mistakes and miscalculations are pursued to their most damaging ends--this man is put through the ringer. Every new complication etches itself in David Roberts' handsomely lined face; he's a drained and ragged man by the time he staggers out of the mess he made. 


  1. I'm such a fan of Australian cinema. I'm going to *have* to check this out. I think I may have been one of three folks I know who saw Animal Kingdom and it made my top 10 of the year. Great post & this sounds like a film I'm gonna love!

  2. The Square shares a similar color palette to Animal Kingdom (cool blues and muted grays) but it's definitely more indebted to American movie tropes. It's pure noir pulp and I enjoyed it a lot. It's sort of a shame it didn't have more time in the States to establish a reputation. I have to say, I'm mostly ignorant on Australian cinema, but from what I've seen, their crime films and Westerns are top-notch. I've never not been impressed with an Australian film.