Just a detail, but isn’t the devil in the details? I do not know if it was intended or not, but our titular square, a competent but out of his element everyman caught up in an affair and some larceny walks up an outdoor staircase with a road sign dominating the lower portion of the frame saying: “No Through Road.” In the fine tradition of noir in colour, from the Coen brothers Blood Simple to Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan to Robert Altman’s The Player, comes the Australian duo, writer/ actor Joel Edgerton and stuntman/director Nash Edgerton and their dazzling juggling act of just how many things can go wrong when everyday folks go about planning a dead-simple crime. At one point, late in the game, of their 2008 film, The Square (only recently making it to North American shores) there are so many spinning plates that you cannot help but sit back and marvel at the plot. It’s a Swiss watch. It’s bad assumption. It’s Murphy’s Law writ small. The film passes effortlessly from tense thriller to pitch-black comedy and is better for it. Anyone who is a fan of this genre should get out there and reap the pure pleasure on offer; for us Canadians, better late than never.
The film opens with a shot of a large magnificent bridge in the forest before the camera pans down to two vehicles parked in the gravel underneath this white, clean structure. Two people are having sex in the car, while their dogs watch from the truck. They part ways, each taking their own canine, back to their real lives. Ray is a construction forman in charge of building a luxury Honeymoon resort in the middle of nowhere. Obviously he has done well for himself, with his sizable house full of amenities, but he is completely distant from his wife, who is more interested in organizing dinner parties. His mistress, Carla, works at the local hair salon and literally lives on the other side of the river in their small town. She lives with a tow-truck driving thug who always has a scam on the go with his construction worker buddies. The town is small enough that one of the buddies even works repair contracts for Ray.
In a recurring bit of visual wit, Carla’s dog recklessly jumps into the river and swims across out of lust for Ray’s poodle. Thus there is a kind of ‘canine-chorus’ for the film which plays out for one of the best (and darkly surprising) foreshadowing gags in the film. But I digress. When Carla finds out about a huge amount of money her boyfriend has landed in one of his scams, like a true femme fatale, she convinces Ray (via sex) to finally grease the wheels of change in his boring-ass life. The plan: Dump his wife and steal the tow-trucker’s illicit bag of money so they can take off and start a new life together. As Gina Gershon said in the Wachowski’s underrated Bound, “Stealing’s always been a lot like sex. Two people who want the same thing: they get in a room, they talk about it. They start to plan. It’s kind of like flirting. It’s kind of like… foreplay, ’cause the more they talk about it, the wetter they get.” Taking the initiative, Ray comes up with the simple plan of taking the money and burning the house down to imply the money went up in the fire. He hires a goon (screenwriter Joel Edgerton) and his girlfriend to do the dirty work. The first complication enters into motion, and leads to a wonderful set-piece at the towns river christmas party that articulates everything you need to know by watching Santa Clause come to town and then make a hasty exit. It is a great visual joke, and these sorts of visual flourishes have to come from the influential Coen Brothers who have been turning bleak, humourous noir into its own art form. The Square does play out as if it were Fargo without the warm balancing factor of Marge Gunderson (one of The Coen’s most magnificent and surprising creations, it is not a fault of first-time feature writer Nash, what he has accomplished here is its own form of plotting-savant.) Like a true noir piece, all the of characters are rather despicable, and watching them flail and flounder and falsely assume the worse is that cinematic shadenfraude you can only get from people behaving badly. The men are fuck-ups and the women are calamities of inaction. You will feel better for your simple, square lifestyle by watching everyone go down the drain by way of their own petty ambitions and guilty consciences. That’s entertainment! (Seriously.)
When “I know what you did” ransom notes start showing up, out-of-the-blue (as Christmas Cards) on Raymond’s desk, guilt and suspicion, not unlike Edgar Allen Poe’s Telltale Heart, begin to cast shadows and doubt on everyone in the small town. Who is sending those notes? So many to choose from: There is Ray’s wife, Carla’s Boyfriend, the guy and gal hired to start the fire, Ray’s take-no-shit Boss, and a number of other ‘suspects,’ who may know that the fire was in foul play. When a local police officer casually mentions to Ray (during an investigation of the construction site) that he is kind of glad to have a real crime to investigate it is a shining ironic moment in the film. Because Ray and Carla are of such amateur variety that they project volumes of suspicion on themselves like radio-waves, but stranger still that the obvious is overlooked. Such is the way things pan out. So many possibilities. It’s not quite Shakespeare but they can squirm and fuck and strive (their hour ‘pon the stange), but odds are, they are not going to make it over that nice white bridge.
If the accents in the picture prove too much for american audiences, I’ve got a casting tidbit for Ray in the inevitable remake. Actor David Roberts is almost the doppelganger for David Straithairn, the resemblance is scary. And since Edgerton happens to be in Toronto at the moment working on another Remake/Prequel (of John Carpenter’s The Thing), he could simply reprise the role with an american accent. But pay no attention to the possiblity of a future remake and check out the original, it is executed with flair, gusto and a delightfully sick sense of humour. I wish more of these types of films were made these days.