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These days the film noir genre largely exists as a reference point, when films dress themselves up with snappy dialogue or complex, violent plots without committing to the true bleakness of the genre the way it originated in the 1940s. The Coen Brothers are the filmmakers most often credited with keeping film noir alive in the modern era, but they've got some competition now from Nash Edgerton, the Australian stuntman and director now making his feature debut with The Square, a wonderfully twisty and dark noir perfectly inspired by the old masterpieces.
In most theatrical screenings The Square will be preceded by Edgerton's short "Spider," which nicely sets up the feature's dark and comic tone by showing a lover's quarrel gone sickeningly, accidentally wrong. The morbid laughs from the short carry over into The Square, a movie that deftly balances its grim plot with a light touch that isn't exactly sarcastic or Coen Brothers-cruel, but does make the audience feel less like they're with sympathetic characters than watching two bugs squirm under a microscope.
Our central characters are Ray (David Roberts) and Carla (Claire van der Boom), an older man and a younger woman, both married to other people, who have been carrying on an affair for years. Ray is the upstanding manager of a construction company, while Carla works at a hair salon and keeps dicier company, made especially evident when her husband comes home with a bag full of money that he stashes in the ceiling. Like so many icy-hearted dames before her, Carla decides she and Ray can take the money and run-- but of course, it's never that easy.
A series of unforeseen disasters and friends of the husband who also have a cut of the money derail Carla and Ray's plans, until Ray is not so much a man with his eye on the horizon but desperately struggling to get out of the next mess. The script, written by Edgerton's brother Joel and Matthew Dabner, presents all these obstacles not as a series of hurdles for Ray to overcome but as a slowly tangling knot, each henchman or accident or paranoid delusion adding on to the other until Ray is thoroughly, irrevocably trapped.
The square of the title is really just a plot of dirt on one of Ray's construction sites, but halfway through the film takes on a Tell-Tale Heart kind of significance that plagues him, representing not just Ray's utter failure at his job but a portal that could suck him in entirely. The symbolic power of the square gives the film a little bit of literary heft, but The Square really works because it's a tightly scripted thriller that pulls absolutely no punches. Between this film and Sundance's Animal Kingdom, directed by Edgerton's frequent collaborator David Michod, there seems to be some kind of crime drama revival happening down under at the moment. Do yourself a favor and get on board early with The Square.