This thriller brings new vitality to a classic genre.
Film noir gets a sunburn in "The Square," a neat, nasty Australian import that bears comparison with "Body Heat" and "Blood Simple." The components are familiar: grafting land developers, gangsters, a bag of cash, a beauty and a patsy. Yet the film thwarts our expectations at every turn. Bad behavior is rewarded, good deeds are punished, and brutal misfortune rains upon the unjust and innocent alike. The film's sunny suburban streets tingle with psychological distress as if they were midnight urban alleys.
The square of the title refers both to a housing development and the regular-Joe site manager overseeing its construction. Ray (David Roberts) wants nothing of the rooted life his project will provide for its customers. He's suffocating in placid midlife domesticity, eager to dump his wife and run off with married neighbor Carla (Claire van der Boom). She's ready to ditch Smithy, a rough-edged tow-truck driver with criminal connections. But the small-time kickbacks Ray takes from his subcontractors aren't enough to finance their getaway. Then Carla spies Smithy hiding a satchel full of cash, and hasty, poorly laid plans trigger an appalling pileup of corpses.
The dramatic structure is familiar, but the characters don't fit neatly into the usual pigeonholes. Ray is not the typical no-good noir protagonist but a cautious, nervous middle manager who's shocked when he finds himself capable of killing. His wife is no shrew, his lover no wicked siren, her husband no standard-issue brute. The nicest character in the mix is an arsonist (Joel Edgerton, the film's co-writer) with a strong moral code. There's no compelling reason for the characters to take desperate measures. If they simply filed for divorce and moved on, they could have had a decent life. But lust -- for each other and for Smithy's dirty cash -- makes them act as if it's emergency time and the old rules no longer apply.
Ray isn't a bad or stupid man, he's just not especially good or bright. He's a bad bluffer, too; Roberts wears a look that says "I'm guilty" even before the felonies begin to mount. When he discovers links between his own misdeeds and a larger web of municipal corruption, his dumbfounded expression is almost laughable. The film draws a dark comic parallel between his yearning for Carla and the instinctual mating dance between their dogs.
While it lacks the sultry sex appeal that powers some of the best noirs, "The Square" is an intense and exciting thriller, smarter than most films with the same themes. Peripheral characters come forward to play important and surprising roles as the twist-studded plot adds snoops, blackmailers and witnesses to the dirty doings. Even though you know awful things are looming, director Nash Edgerton springs them so swiftly that they hit you before you're prepared. The violence is messy, but the timing is elegant. At the finale, following a bloody showdown, one of the characters stumbles out into the street, staggering unsteadily as if stunned by a blow to the head. "The Square" packs that kind of wallop.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186