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Things Fall Apart
on August 27, 2010
Noir films obsess over unintended consequences, on the destruction that may proceed from the slightest failures of foresight or from simple chance. This notion is best illustrated in the literary forebear "The Maltese Falcon," where Spade reflects on Flitcraft, a seemingly normal, happy man who one day abandoned his job and family after nearly being crushed by a falling beam. The truth, Flitcraft realized, was that the seeming solidity of his world was a lie--all could be lost in an instant for no reason at all. So, he abandoned this world, abandoned regularity and left it all behind. In Nash Edgerton's feature debut "The Square," Raymond Yale (David Roberts), an ethically dubious construction manager, decides to begin anew as well, not for any philosophical reasons, but rather because he is tired of his wife or, at least, much more interested in the lovely young Carla Smith (Claire van der Boom [a ridiculous name, even by Dutch standards]), a neighbor from across the cove in their small Australian town. Raymond would actually prefer to simply keep seeing Carla on the side, but Carla wants to escape her loutish, criminal husband Smithy (Anthony Hayes), and gives Raymond an ultimatum. Raymond finally relents, and they decide to fund their escape by relieving Smithy of a few hundred thousand ill-gotten dollars, and covering their theft by hiring the shady Billy (Joel Edgerton, co-writer and brother of Nash) to burn the Smith house while the town collectively takes part in Christmas festivities. This seemingly straightforward plan, however, goes horrifically awry and, in a vision rather more moralistic than that of the Darwinian-minded Hammett, Raymond and Carla soon find that the beams are falling with disturbing regularity. Many viewers will be incredulous that Murphy's Law could be applied with such speed and merciless consistency, but this is part of the film's fun, seeing how everything falls apart so completely. More significantly, while chance is clearly against all those involved, the human motivations remain clear and believable. They repeatedly fall into traps, but we can see how and why they wandered into them.
"The Square" is a somewhat difficult film to review, as the reviewer must reveal little. Many have compensated by comparing it to earlier works, particularly "Blood Simple." This is indeed apt even beyond the obvious fraternal debut collaboration on a severely noir-oriented thriller angle. Significantly, Edgerton and co. take a Coen-esque hyper-cinematic and slightly postmodern approach (though in a non-winking manner), reinforce the drama via delicious black humor, and even the sparse solo piano that often drives the score reminds of "Blood Simple"'s minimalist soundtrack. The Australian setting, however, makes "The Square" stand apart somewhat from its antecedents. Though perhaps I'm alone in this, my exposure to Australian film have given me a quasi-mythical view of the country as being somehow more brutal and raw then the rest of the Anglosphere. This is no doubt hyperbolic if not an utter fabrication, but this vision is reinforced and expanded by "The Square," where this Australian town seems a sort of grotesque recasting of the stereotypical image of the American south, filled with steamy intrigue and hardened rednecks bearing antisocial hair. (The mullet budget on this film must've been enormous.) Thus, it is appropriate and familiar, yet still somehow new. Similarly, Edgerton expands the visual palette, mixing standard noir high-contrast and emphasis on night, shadow and rain with a dusty, gray-brown color scheme that oozes sleaze and treachery. (Indeed the film is so smudged and muted looking that I wondered if the theater had turned down the bulb, though viewing the DVD proved this was not the case.) Despite the low-budget and 16mm film stock, however, the film is quite smooth and professional, filled with terse, hard-edged performances and edited down to a sharp, tightly knit narrative. (This efficiency is made even more evident after viewing the 25 minutes of deleted scenes on the DVD.) The film is not exactly fast-paced, but it has an unrelenting intensity to it--everything seems to matter, and does. (That said, the film still has the odd little touches that make a movie stand out, such as the peculiar subplot about the adulterous pair's similarly enamored pet dogs.)
The main criticism viewers will have of "The Square" is from a human interest angle. There are no heroes, as Raymond is a cheater and corrupt businessman (he receives kickbacks from contractors) even before they embark on the scheme, while Carla is little more than an adulterous cipher. (Quite an attractive one, though. Mentioned that before did I? May well do so again before the review is done.) Though I can't deny that Raymond is a bad guy, I'll admit to sympathizing with him. While films of this sort often suggest that venal sins lead to those of a mortal nature, Raymond doesn't really become more malevolent as the film progresses, but merely has the world collapse around him. As soon as the arson goes awry and Raymond begins receiving mysterious cards demanding cash for silence (but about what? He has many secrets), he is paralyzed, hopeless. Other reviewers have compared the film to a nightmare, the sort where you perform some terrible deed and spend the rest of the dream awaiting and fearing your punishment. (And, of course, failing at simple tasks and having absolutely everything go wrong is another common dream theme.) The resemblance is indeed uncanny, and the dreadful sensation it imbues draws me deep into Raymond's plight even if, objectively speaking, he seems to be asking for some sort of rebuke. (Many others, however, receive rather unwarranted retribution.)
I've been pretty cagey here by necessity, so I'll throw in a few honorifics. In short, "The Square" is the best thriller since "No Country For Old Men" and perhaps the best thrillers of the 00s apart from that film. Discover it now before the other cult film aficionados find it and be hipper than the rest.