Nash Edgerton’s The Square has been likened to the work of the Coen Brothers. That Nash Edgerton works with his brother—named Joel, no less—as writer and co-producer has resulted in the duo actually being tagged as “the new Coen Brothers.” The latter is certainly premature, but comparing The Square to the Coens’ work is not unreasonable, though it lacks the flair for dialogue found in the Coens’ films. Think of The Square as a Coen Brothers picture of few words and you’re in the ballpark. (Having spoken with Nash Edgerton, the film’s taciturn quality doesn’t surprise me.) This is a tough, lean neo-noir crime thriller that most resembles the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984), but in the end is its own film.
I’ve seen The Square twice now, once at a critics’ screening and once on a DVD screener. The first time I was impressed with its unflinching portrait of a crime gone wrong and the amazingly creative manner in which that crime keeps going wrong in various ways. It can truly be said that once things start to run amok in the world of The Square, they only get worse. I remained impressed in that regard the second time I watched the film, but grew to better appreciate the film’s tightly constructed story line, its pitch-black sense of humor and its ability to create suspense on a subsequent viewing. What at first struck me as a solid little thriller, now strikes me as a film that quite possibly heralds the arrival of a fresh voice on the movie scene.
The story is a pretty basic noir thriller. Raymond Yale (David Roberts) heads up a construction company in charge of building an upscale resort. He is good at his job and only marginally dishonest in a kickback manner. But he is also not in the happiest of marriages and is having an affair with a neighbor, Carla Smith (Claire van der Boom), a hairdresser with a low-grade criminal husband, Greg “Smithy” Smith (Anthony Hayes). Carla is more than marginally dishonest, so when she discovers her husband has stashed a bag filled with money in their attic, she decides she and Ray should steal that money and run away together.
This is way past Ray’s notions of minor thievery and he refuses, but when Carla dumps him, he rethinks his position. What if Carla takes the money and Ray hires someone to burgle the house and “accidentally” burn the place down so that Greg will think the money was destroyed in the blaze? It seems simple and even fairly safe—in theory. In practice, everything goes wrong from the onset—starting with the fact that Greg’s mother (Maree D’Arcy) happens to be home at the time of the arson and dies in the fire. Everything begins to unravel and the film plunges into accidental killings, awkward corpses in need of disposal, blackmail schemes, misplaced suspicions and more. It all leads to a climax of classic film-noir bitter cynicism and irony.
I’m not going to reveal any more specifics concerning the way things go wrong—except to note that even nature seems determined to destroy Ray and his scheme—because part of the delight in the film is encountering the creative ways in which the movie piles on the misfortunes. The process is almost like a Rube Goldberg machine that doles out one piece of bad luck after another. I will note that what results is not for everyone: The violence in the film is brutish and unadorned. It’s not dwelled on, but neither is it stylized into any kind of safety zone.
Visually and technically, Edgerton makes splendid use of his wide-screen format and a great deal of steady-cam work. There’s a good deal of handheld camera, but refreshingly Edgerton eschews the shaky-cam trend in favor of a more classical approach—one that serves the film well. In terms of a modern crime thriller, you’re not going to do any better than this debut film. Rated R for violence and language.