Film >Four sides to every story
Nothing’s ever easy in Australia, not swimming (box jellyfish) nor hiking (dingoes) or even its movie stars (Mel Gibson). Look up the Burke and Wills expedition to see how well Europeans fared in the Island of Despair’s early days.
It fits, then, that an Australian story of a quaint, neighborly affair between two grown adults should end in murder, deceit, betrayal, arson, car accidents and manual labor mishaps. The Square, directed by Hollywood stuntman Nash Edgerton and co-written by his brother, Joel – who’s also a co-star – is a debut feature that replaces the Coen brothers’ humor in similarly labyrinthine comedies of errors with Arthur Penn’s grit and Peckinpah’s tense string tuning. While that’s certainly not bad company for a first film, the Edgertons have miles to go before they sleep.
The first act runs with the momentum of the filmmaker’s previous triumph, the short film Spider, a fantastic 9-minute soliloquy with a great payoff that gobbled up festival awards in 2007. Like that short, the director sets up the world of Raymond Yale (David Roberts), a tough middle-aged developer who, in addition to his affair with the luminous Carla (Claire van der Boom), is also tempting fate by accepting kickbacks for land permits.
When Carla’s boyfriend, Billy, comes home with bloody clothes and a bag full of money, she sees it as her opportunity to run away with the married Raymond for good. She and Raymond set up a scheme that would garner them Billy’s blood money, burn away any trace of their wrongdoing and allow them to disappear.
This is when things go horribly, unimaginably wrong, and the “when” part is what keeps The Square from fulfilling its potential. Edgerton is so adept at thrusting the viewer directly into the narrative (as evidenced by his successful shorts) and establishing romantic and platonic bonds, ethical dilemmas and motivations – aspects of a story that take most filmmakers an hour, if at all – that there’s a huge midpoint letdown. The Square’s entire second act is devoted to the characters, who are already flushed down the rabbit hole; Edgerton pieces together for us what happened to them. This leads to faux-suspenseful plot twists involving scented stationery, of all things, and a lot of gun-to-the-head questioning.
The Square picks up at the end to ratchet up the body count, but by then it’s too late for the steam to come back, as the story downshifts from an over-the-top maze to a tragic blip on the police blotter. Luckily, the characters aren’t done an injustice, as the perceptive and subtle performances by Roberts and van der Boom feel organically realized. And Edgerton does have some New Hollywood in him; his tremendous commitment to his material and environmental clarity are genuine gifts. I hope he finds time in between risking his neck as a stuntman to get behind the camera again.