In classic movies, we’re presented with a morality play, an examination of good versus evil, with a satisfying comeuppance, an ending that reminds us that good triumphs. Modern cinema, however, seems to have far more moral ambiguity and it’s common for the bad guy to triumph.
That’s why it was a pleasure to watch the dark, intense Australian film The Square. It’s noir at its best, with a logical – and tragic – sequence of events set off by an all-too-common situation: an affair between two people in a small town.
The couple having the affair are construction contractor Raymond Yale (David Roberts) and hairdresser Carla (Claire van der Boom). They’ve been having the affair for a while, but Carla is becoming dissatisfied and wants the older Raymond to leave his wife (Wendy, played by Lisa Baily). For her own part, she’ll also leave her unstable, low-life husband Greg “Smitty” Smith (Anthony Hayes) and the two of them will make a new life for themselves far away from their small semi-rural New South Wales town.
From that point on, everything that transpires seems distressingly inevitable and watching the story unfold and the pressures of the impending departure begin to wear down Raymond, are akin to watching a train wreck: you want to look away, but a morbid curiosity keeps you staring at the screen until the inevitable, shocking but satisfying ending. Films like The Square also remind me why I love cinema so much, actually, and demonstrate that it’s a thoughtful script, solid acting and good direction that make a great movie, not special effects or big budgets. Highly recommended.
There are a number of plot lines unfolding simultaneously in The Square, so you really do need to pay close attention to what’s going on. When Carla finds a bag of cash stashed in the attic that’s presumed to be ill-gotten gains from her boyfriend’s criminal activities she believes it’ll bankroll her new life with Raymond. Not surprisingly, Ray resists, alarmed at the idea of stealing money from a criminal enterprise, but after being emotionally blackmailed by Carla, finally assents. He crafts an ingenious plan to steal the money without Smitty realizing it’s been stolen but things go tragically wrong, and the wheels are in motion with all the players in this dark play.
Meanwhile, Carla and Ray continue to meet and it’s no surprise when Ray receives a blackmail note from someone in town: “I know what you’re up to. Pay me $10,000 or I’ll tell.” But who wrote it? Construction site mechanic and Smitty’s fellow gang member Leonard (Brendan Donoghue)? More importantly, what’s the threatened revelation of the many crimes that happen in the film?
There’s surprisingly little police presence in this movie, quite unlike contemporary cinematic fare from Hollywood, but at one point Sergeant Miles (Paul Caesar) interviews Ray, after which he explains something that we always suspect small town cops believe: “it’s nice to finally have stuff to do: bit of a fire, bit of death, now this.”
Later, in a moment that foreshadows the climax of the film, Carla tells Ray:”If we don’t leave soon, something’s going to happen!” His response is typical of men who are pushed beyond their comfort zone, pushed into a world of trouble and complexity beyond their experience: “We should get back [to the party]”.
David Roberts and Claire van der Boom in “The Square”
Good noir offers different ways to understand the underlying morality play, from the POV of the camera to the travails of minor characters to the weather that occurs scene-by-scene. The Square is no different and offers us the recurring motif of characters peeking through barely open doors or partially obscured windows as a metaphor for us, the viewer, in the theater. Additionally, we see Carla and Ray’s dogs become attached to each other, and their relationship acts as a metaphor for the human relationship and its troubles and dangers.
The cinematography was unusual for a noir film too, with many POV shots that felt more like an old-school horror film. In many scenes the camera is a palpable presence in the room as things slowly unfold in a manner guaranteed to maximize our anxiety and concern for the likable main characters..
I can’t say enough favorable about this movie. It’s gripping and startling in a way that modern Hollywood films seem to have completely eschewed, and when the film finally rolls to the closing credits, you’re left breathless at the closing scene and at the journey filmmaker Nash Edgerton has brought us on. Highly recommended.