The title of Nash Edgerton’s “The Square” could easily refer to the neatly packaged category of film noir in which it exists. The Australian director’s first feature involves a pair of star-crossed suburban adulterers whose background scheming is doomed to fail, and from the opening minutes, the entire narrative experience revolves around watching them arrive at that point. The most obvious antecedent for this enticing combination of black comedy and suspense is the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple,” but “The Square” has a more basic, classical charm that recalls moody 1940s-era noirs such as “Double Indemnity” and countless others. It has a smooth rhythm from start to finish, blending elegance with a macabre sensibility to create an enjoyably anachronistic vibe.
Yet at the same time, “The Square” has a naughty spirit that upgrades it to contemporary standards for the genre. Richard (David Roberts), the ill-fated fortysomething anti-hero, seems virtually doomed from the outset: He cheats on his wife with neighbor Carla (Claire van der Boom) but squirms when his secret lover brings up the possibility of running away together. Carla’s own husband has arguably worse vices than the troubled romantic duo, as evidenced by the stolen money he keeps stashed away in the attic.
But his sins eventually pale in comparison to Carla and Richard’s misguided schemes to complete their ride-into-the-sunset fantasy. A simple plan to take the money and run leads them to hire an arsonist, whose ramshackle methods are cause for a scheduling error and an inadvertent murder. And so the next act begins in a magnificent blaze.
When the bodies start piling up, Edgerton works “The Square” into a playful celebration of morbidity at the movies. Richard (portrayed by Roberts as perpetually trapped between a grimace and a scowl) remains both likable for his everyman status and hilariously moronic. His constant failures turn “The Square” into a harsh morality lesson.
The movie has a pure Hitchcockian sensibility — there seem to be several MacGuffins in play. We’re constantly forced to consider the stakes: Is Richard’s downward spiral a result of his commitment to impossible love or a more general need to escape the mundane rituals of his daily routine?
It could be both. “The Square” provides innumerable questions about human nature taken to its extremes, but Edgerton (whose brother Joel co-wrote the screenplay and plays the arsonist) toys around with the philosophical underpinnings of the scenario rather than arriving at a precise conclusion. The story is steeped in cinematic metaphors, particularly the titular construction site, a visually spare location where Richard literally buries his troubles. In a bold digression from the main story arc, Edgerton shows us the relationship between two dogs, suggesting the absurd nature of the tangled plot stems from purely animalistic behavior on the part of its human subjects.
Intriguingly, “The Square” is being released into theaters preceded by Edgerton’s short film, “Spider.” This fleeting peek at a prankster getting his comeuppance provides a nifty introduction to Edgerton’s genre tendencies, but its supremely demented finale makes “The Square” look restrained by comparison. Still, while it may not invent any new rules, the movie excels at many old ones. It never quite ventures into the surreal territory of “Blood Simple,” and the relentlessly familiar storytelling means the overall staying power is short-lived. But Edgerton’s commitment to precise cinematic language provides a reminder that movies don’t have to be reinvented to simply work like gangbusters.