Monday, April 16, 2012

The Square

The Square (4/5)

The Australian film, The Square, is well versed in the long and storied history of film noir.  It takes its basic narrative outline from Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity—the kind of films familiar to non-film buffs, even if it is second hand information gathered through parodies and borrowed snippets in other films.  And while the story is nothing new, the film orchestrates each bad decision with such craft that it’s hard not to be won over by such a well made film.

Like some of the above films, The Square begins with an illicit tryst.  As the movie begins, Ray and Carla appear to have been carrying on an affair for some time.  There is an age and class difference between the two.  Ray manages a construction site and has slipped into a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle, where Carla, while not poor, is married to a low level gangster.  Ray appears to be about a decade Carla’s senior, and while it isn’t entirely clear what Ray finds so mundane about his typical middle class existence, I’m sure Carla’s age is part of her allure.  The two have been talking about running away together for some months, and an opportunity arises when Carla comes across a duffel bag full of cash hidden in the crawl space of her house.  The two plan to steal the bag, hire someone to burn down the house in order to hide the theft, and then run off together.

The director, Nash Edgarton (brother to the Joel Edgarton, actor and screenwriter), smartly avoids too much exposition.  We don’t need to know what problems Ray has been having with his wife, or what it is exactly that Carla’s husband, Greg, does that makes it necessary for him to have a coterie of seedy friends, so the filmmakers don’t tell us.  The movie is appropriately streamlined.  Obviously, the plan to steal the duffel bag full of money and burn down Carla’s house doesn’t work as planned, which sets each character against the other.  Part of the appeal of film noir is the manner in which choices veer off into unforeseen consequences.  A major theme of the genre tends to be our own lack of control, how we are often carried along the stream of life and when we attempt to change course we too often encounter eddies and currents that override our intentions.  The Square is a film about the irrevocability of choices.

The Edgarton brothers are mostly known for work in front of the camera than behind it (director Nash has done both acting and stunt work while his brother Joel has started making inroads acting in large Hollywood fare).  But judging by the well crafted nature of The Square, these two should team up more often as a writing and directing team.  Film noir is often the chosen genre for eager young directors who are looking to prove themselves.  There’s a reason why Quentin Tarantino, Brian Singer, and, of course, the Cohen Brothers (who would go on to make film noir their own little playground for years to come) started their careers by making taunt film noir thrillers: film noir is the perfect test of a director’s skills.  Early film noir established a clear visual style, and since its inception in the mid-forties, the genre has had a sense of formalism about it.  In order to master the genre, you had to first show that you understood how the language of film worked while simultaneously applying your own spin on the themes of love, lust, murder, and the underside of capitalism.  Likewise, Nash Edgarton understands the genre well, and he convinces us that each small decision these characters make, which appear reasonable on their own, could spiral into unthinkable mistakes.  He also tells the story visually, never wasting words when a subtle camera movement will do.  For us outsiders, Australia is often viewed as a rugged desert full of sun hardened men and women.  I can think of fewer settings more suitable to film noir. 

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