Reminiscent of the "serious side" of The Coen Brothers' filmmaking, most especially their neo-noir crime flick Blood Simple, Australian import The Square constructs a thriller that's busting at the seams with edgy mood, intriguing performances, and a vein of suspense that's about as relentless as I've seen in a contemporary film of its type. Director Nash Edgerton, mostly limited to short films over the past decade, uses his experience well by making every second count in his feature-length debut, written by his actor brother Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner. Even though they navigate all the furiously moving pieces with a surgical eye, the film suffers from a lopsided number of dubious fluke events in the narrative that detract from an otherwise fierce, polished picture.
The Square follows Raymond (David Roberts), a mostly-honest contractor wrapped up in an unsatisfying marriage, and his emotion-driven affair with Carla (Claire van der Boom), a young hairdresser trapped in a relationship with her criminal husband, Smithy (Anthony Hayes). The affair clearly stretches beyond the point of occasional rendezvous in cars and hotels, as the pair often ponder the idea of leaving their significant others. Alas, they don't have the capital to do so, until Carla accidentally sees her husband stashing a duffel bag full of money away in their home. With her husband unaware that she knows about the bag, Carla cooks up a scheme with Raymond that'll give them a way to run away with the dirty money, without her husband knowing that they took it. But it requires them to seek out a bit of illegal activity (where Joel Edgerton himself pops into the picture) and some starting cash that Raymond has to collect, which, conveniently, wheels were already in motion for him to receive a healthy multi-thousand dollar kickback at his work.
From the start, it's clear that the Edgerton brothers aim for a forcefully dark tone with The Square, and the nerve it generates pushes well beyond palpable boundaries. After gracefully constructing the relationship between Raymond and Carla into a pair that we can, in ways, "root for", it takes a sharp turn into a hornet's nest that can essentially be looked at as Murphy's Law in practice, giving nearly every conversation in the film nerve-searing ferocity and every action an impending sense of doom. Chilly, emotionally-starved cinematography capture the couple's scheming, blanketing moments like an outdoor Christmas candle service with an ominous tone. While the setup isn't novel, a take-the-money-and-run plot that doesn't go according to plan, the integrity behind this persistent anxiety masks a lack of innovation. The film's manner couldn't be more deftly realized.
As cunning as the tension can be in The Square as the events unfold, it has to combat against the script's second-rate grasp on practicality within its many twists and shock-value turns. Edgerton's film overuses happenstance, especially when it comes to the handful of deaths that occur. Don't get me wrong: executing surprise fatalities in otherwise subdued thrillers can be shockingly satisfying. However, when one oopsie-daisy death piles up after another, the lack of realism behind this otherwise pragmatic thriller comes close to watering down its potency. Sure, accidents will happen amid fast-paced scheming, blackmail, erratic driving, and scenes at a construction site, but their frequency here -- and the convenience of their occurrence -- leaves a lingering sense of frustration. Even with unflinching performances from the cast as a whole, it's difficult to overlook these creative but impractical man-made mistakes in such a realistic environment.
This skepticism even permeates the film's initial gut-wrenching twist, where both forgotten and dying cellphones mix with the timing of a quick house visit to create what'll become the two main characters' karmic backlash -- and a central gloomy theme. Maybe that's being a little rough on Edgerton's thriller, focusing on the bumps in the road that take away from its common sense, but it's only because there's so much potential stirring around in the film that it's a downer to see it being forced to drag around the baggage of suspended disbelief. One might make a case that the twists in logic add something of a darkly comical flare to the narrative, or even as an onslaight of visceral negativity that adds to the cautionary elements in the film -- you know, of the "don't cheat", "don't employ those whom you feel bad for employing" variety -- but those possibilities simply don't fit.
Is the process of watching all this collapsing onto Raymond and Carla still a gripping affair? Absolutely, in the same vein as keeping your eyes locked on an uncontrollable nightmare of sorts playing out on-screen. Tense performances from the entire cast certainly help in that regard, even if the primary characters are deliberately unlikable from top to bottom. This is especially true for David Roberts, recognizable as the gruff hovercraft captain Roland from The Matrix: Reloaded and Revolutions, who crafts Raymond into an anti-hero full of deep veracity. Matched with the raw prowess powering the storyline and superb filmmaking, the outrageous situations that fill The Square are handled with enough of an exhilarating, straight-faced edge to nearly legitimize their absurdity. Though it doesn't quite achieve that and suffers from avoidable flaws, it certainly still etches out a place for the writer/director duo as a force to be reckoned with in their upcoming features, especially in the crime thriller genre.
Video and Audio:
Considering that the film was shot on 16mm and blown up to its 2.40:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p AVC rendering of The Square looks decent. A usage of rich, stylish contrast renders a few unique dark levels, making bits like the Chinese diner sequences more ensnaring than expected and the rainfall points at the construction site an atmospheric success. The palette generally leans towards a slightly desaturated look, which this Blu-ray supports with balanced skin tones and appropriate scenic shots. It's, in general, softer than than expected and lacking in depth, even for a 16mm film blown up, while the grain present pushes closer to digital noise than film stock. And, on top of that, there are quite a few visible speckles and debris spotted across the print, though nothing awfully distracting really pops out. Other than that, this Blu-ray arrives with a strong representation of the material, sporting a healthy bitrate (often close to 30mbps) and looking extremely film-like.
The DTS HD Master Audio track present on The Square doesn't offer much on the dynamic side of things, as it mostly focuses on the dialogue and moody scoring grating against one another. There are a few sequences that deviate from this, such as, again, the rainfall sequence later in the film. The water drops swarm in very appropriate fashion to all channels, dominating the vocals a bit more than expected but rich nonetheless. In general, though, the sound effects are a bit on the hollow side; one or two gunshots in the film have a bit of a tinny twang to them, sound elements like a duffel bag hitting surfaces weakly squeaks into the sound design, while the sounds of a car chase, including a crash, are on the thin side. It serves its central purposes well enough, with the dialogue staying mostly crisp and the music coming at all angles, but it's not without a few ho-hum elements. Optional English and English SDH subtitles are available.
Inside The Square (29:36, SD MPEG-2):
Essentially thirty minutes of behind-the-scenes shots, this piece chronologically flows along with the construction of The Square. It ratchets through pre-reads, stunt coordination, camera tests and casting in its earlier moments, running through topics like how the negative will look blown up to a 2.40 aspect ratio to the way they captured several of the intense moments in the film. Since it wasn't shot on much of a budget, the experiences that they capture behind the scenes -- from worry about sunlight, rainfall sequences looking too muddy, and script issues -- mirror a lot of the real stuff you'd see off-screen on just about any independent film set. That includes lots of near-euphoric joking around by exhausted actors and filmmakers, and it's a lot of fun to watch.
Pre-Visualization (5:09, SD MPEG-2):
Also including some interviews and strategy talk among the filmmakers, these bits cover the "research" footage for some of the more active sequences in the film. When there's not any dialogue involved, the pieces enter a split-screen mode that illustrates the comparison between the test footage and the actual footage from the film.
Scene Deconstruction (5:16, SD MPEG-2):
Three scenes -- "Billy Watches The Fire", "House Fire", and "Falling Dream" -- receive some commentary-like discussion on the way FUEL's digital and practical effects mix with the original negative footage. Quite simply, I couldn't pin-point any of these added effects, which range from digital addition of smoke to practical splicing of post-production fire. The most elaborate of them, "Falling Dream", features a sophisticated hybrid of aerial stills, digital composites, and some crane footage that's extremely well-thought.
Also included are a slate of Deleted Scenes (24:57, SD MPEG-2) a music video, "Sand" by Jessica Chapnik (3:58, 16x9 MPEG-2), and one of Nash Edgerton's short films, Spider (9:34, HD MPEG-2), a sharp little feature that shares a similar issue as The Square by taking a step too far in happenstance, thus detracting from an otherwise excellent piece.
Despite the aggravation that it generates with an overuse of circumstance, The Square delivers exactly what it sets out to do -- power a familiar story of deceit and blackmail forward with relentless suspense. Effective performances, including a gripping turn from David Roberts in the lead, hallmark this brash but involving chaos, culminating into a slew of twists and turns that erratically rides the line between realism and ridiculousness. Nash Edgerton's style, the magnetism generated from the drama, and the overall manner that bubbles from a combination of the two make this an edgy feature-length debut that's undeniably involving. Sony's Blu-ray looks and sounds rather decent, while the collection of special features satisfy for their somewhat short duration. Recommended.