Film noir has never gone out of fashion, and “The Square” proves that it’s as popular in Australia as anywhere else. But the little picture from Down Under isn’t just a film noir; it’s so complicated an example of the genre that you might call it a film noir squared, if you’ll pardon the pun. That’s both a virtue and—as it turns out—a vice. It makes for an amusingly complicated ride, but at the same time one so stuffed with coincidences and twists that by the end it’s become labored and faintly risible.
The set-up owes a lot to such classics as “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Ray Yule (David Roberts) is a construction foreman overseeing a rural housing development who’s having an affair with his younger neighbor Carla (Claire van der Boom), a hairdresser. They conceal their assignations from his wife Martha (Lucy Bell) and her husband Smithy (Anthony Haynes) by using their dogs as virtual go-betweens; and the interest of the pooches in each other amusingly mirrors their owners’.
The plot kicks in when Carla discovers that Smithy, a shady character with a rough bunch of pals, had hidden a stack of cash—presumably from a robbery—in their attic crawl-space. She suggests to Ray that they steal it and run off together, since Ray’s skimming of money from the building project via kickbacks is going too slowly to suit her. He eventually agrees, and they concoct a plan to take the dough and then set the house afire to convince Smithy that it’s burned up in the blaze. (Of course, one imagines he’d suspect the truth when his wife disappeared, but that’s just one of the plot holes you have to sweep aside.)
Of course, in time-honored noir fashion the plan goes disastrously wrong. Ray hires Billy (Joel Edgerton) to burn down Carla and Smithy’s house when everyone’s at the town Christmas celebration in the park. But he discovers at the last minute that Smithy’s mother is there, and though he tries to postpone the arson, Billy fails to get the message he tries to relay through Billy’s sister Lily (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence) and the woman is killed. Then Ray begins to get blackmail messages, and he winds up trying to conceal a corpse beneath the foundation of a house being built on his site—if the rainy weather will ever allow the concrete to be poured. Smithy begins to suspect that his money wasn’t destroyed in the fire at all, and methodically starts to track down the thief, with Carla a definite possibility. Even the dogs can find no happiness when one is…oh, I don’t want to ruin the surprise.
It’s obvious from this that the brothers Joel and Nash Edgerton, who wrote and directed “The Square” (the former in collaboration with Matthew Dabner), have decided to include each and every twist and turn they can concoct, or simply remember from the classic noirs of old. And frankly the more complex the plot gets, the more implausible it becomes. But realism and logic have never been the genre’s strong suit, and for the most part the movie (edited by Luke Doolan and Nash Edgerton) moves along at sufficient speed to cover the narrative lapses without descending into simple absurdity (although to be honest, a bit of business involving a baby near the end comes awfully close).
This is obviously a low-budget effort, and frankly the paucity of funds shows, not only in the visuals (cinematography by Brad Shield), which certainly capture the dingy milieu in which these characters operate but aren’t very attractive to look at, but the performances, which are generally workmanlike but little more; Roberts, in particular, seems rather stolid as put-upon Ray. To compensate, Francois Tetaz’s score adds some nicely atmospheric touches.
“The Square” won’t become a classic to set beside those of Billy Wilder and Tay Garnett (talk about a prolific one-shot wonder!), but it’s a mostly winning homage to them. And if you get the chance, be sure to check out Nash Edgerton’s short film “Spider,” a wonderfully mean-spirited little joke that, along with this debut feature, proves that the erstwhile stuntman has a real future behind the camera.