Taking a gritty detective story and turning it on its ear, rookie writer/director Jamie Rafn crafted something affecting and surprising, while tweaking a genre we're all more than familiar with. Rafn, faced with a miniscule budget did what lots of low-budget filmmakers can't seem to manage: He cut the distractions down to a minimum and just built a taut, simple film around a story told in half-light. Not much dialog, not many flourishes, just spare locations, acting, and lean filmmaking.
Soho Square is the story of a detective (Anthony Biggs) assigned to track down a serial killer leaving his female victims burnt to a crisp in public places. His investigation staggers along as the detective morbidly boozes his nights away. The film slowly unravels the source of his malaise with the kind of patience that leaves the audience running through a series of emotions.
The set-up is pretty standard, and even the twists aren't too unique, but the treatment is. The film has a mournful, quiet vibe that fits the main character's emerging personality. It also features a fractured timeline, something that viewers are probably used to by now, post Pulp Fiction and Memento, but it's somewhat different here. The film sort of folds in on itself as you watch it, with past remembrances and new events echoing each other and with the film eventually circling around to meet itself.
It gets said a lot, but this is one film that really opens up on second viewing. It might be just a gimmick (the story and the characters don't quite achieve real meaningful depth) but it's effective. There are moments near the end where the way the film reflects back things you've already seen can just leave you with chills. Rafn's use of silence and noise along with surreal imagery adds to the tension. One particularly dark scene (an homage to Michael Powell's career-wrecking thriller Peeping Tom, I'd wager) is dense with dread but instead of exploding in fireworks it falls away in a cacophonous jumble, only to be revisited later.
What's interesting is that after finishing the short film (the packaging lists the running time as 90 minutes, but overestimates by nearly a quarter hour) I wasn't exactly sure who did what. Sure, some characters turned out to be more than we initially may have thought, but what did it mean, exactly? I'm not sure if Rafn missed some plot points or if he aimed to leave the film so ambiguous. I suspect the latter, since it fits his minimalist style. Not knowing all the secrets of the film even after watching it makes it feel even darker and more disturbing.
As I said, Soho Square isn't necessarily deep in a thematic sense, but it does stay with you thanks to fine, somber performances and its crafty, creative director. While the film is easily identifiable as extreme low budget, it's really only the consumer-grade tape stock that gives it away. Rafn does a lot with few resources and makes you curious about how he'd do with a bigger budget.
The video is non-anamorphic widescreen and looks pretty terrible. DV camera compression is evident throughout and darker scenes (which comprise most of the film) are gritty and chunky. This is a stylish film from a cinematographic standpoint, but the tape on which it was shot is low-quality. Having said that, the quality does add to the mood throughout.
The Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack is fine. Dialog recorded on location is pretty clear, if a bit murky. English subtitles helped with a few scenes where the mix of accent and audio quality made dialog a bit tough. The sound mix itself, however, is atmospheric and creepy. The spare score often breaks down into seemingly random noises and adds to the film very nicely. Like the video, this is an example of doing a lot with a little.
The main extra is a commentary track from director Rafn. This is a loose, energetic track with a director who's happy to discuss flaws in his film and the process of scraping the production together. He has an easy-going attitude that really works.
Also included is a very short Sundance Channel profile on the film and a US trailer.
A tough film about a character's very internal unraveling, Soho Square uses the basic tools of filmmaking (editing, images, sound) in ways that bypass the need for a big budget. Director Rafn may be working with a tired genre but his approach is fresh and unpretentious. He may very well be a talent to watch.