Sunday, May 2, 2010
Nash Edgerton is the real deal. He has been a first-rate stuntman for quite some time, and The Square marks his feature debut, one of the best in recent years. Edgerton is a director that has an affinity for "shock" moments. These aren't the cheap thrills seen in most modern thrillers; they are real and unpredictable because the director knows when to employ them. There is not a man lurking behind the wall every two or three minutes like there was in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Edgerton aligns his shocks few and far between, a technique that ensures constant suspense in what otherwise may seem like a rather slow-moving film.
Edgerton's most impressive short film Spider is being shown before The Square in theaters across the country. The director's films have a dark humor about them that I really respond to. This genre is usually hit or miss for me, particularly in the realm of the Coen brothers. While Burn After Reading felt like one of the funniest films of its year, older Coen staples such as Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski do very little for me.
Spider and The Square, however, always seem to hit the right note. The "shocks" that Edgerton delivers are often followed by laughter, but that is not because the outlandishness of his material becomes silly. It is because this is a filmmaker with an ability to make his audience squeam at will. We have to laugh, or else we may just go crazy.
The Square features a top-notch Australian cast. A superb David Roberts stars as Ray Yale, a construction worker assigned to oversee a new project, "The Square." Ray is married to Martha (Lucy Bell), but he is in love with the much younger Carla (the striking Claire van der Boom). Carla is also married; her husband is the small-time criminal Smithy (Anthony Hayes).
Carla comes home one day and finds her husband in the laundry room hiding a bag full of cash. He thinks he hears someone else in the house, but Carla is smart in the way she approaches the situation. She is able to make Smithy feel secure enough to drop his suspicions, while still being able to locate the bag herself. Some time soon after, she brings the money to Ray and suggests that they run off together.
Not so easy, Ray says, but Carla is not willing to take no for an answer anymore. A desperate Ray hatches a plan to hire someone to burn the house down and make it seem as if the money disappeared into a pile of ashes. That person is Billy (Joel Edgerton, Nash's brother, who also wrote the script with Matthew Dabner). But this is a noir, and not surprisingly, things do not go according to plan. At least the house burns down, but that's about it.
The beauty of this film, like Blood Simple and so many others, is that all the decisions are logical. No matter how many bodies pile up or how many lies are told, we are able to understand why the characters are doing what they are doing. These are people in way over their heads, and mistakes are bound to be made.
I was also intrigued by the way the film handled the roles of the neglected spouses. Smithy is an abusive, angry husband, and it is quite easy to see why Carla would want to leave him. But Ray's wife Martha is another story. She is a very minor character with hardly any lines of dialogue at all. What may appear to be a throwaway character actually becomes something fresh to the genre. Martha seems to be an honest person, and this challenges our sympathy for Ray. Does he deserve our feelings when he is hurting a good person?
The emotional wear and tear of these stories often falls on the shoulders of the male hero. Remember John Getz's voice in Blood Simple, and the way it got deeper and deeper as the film went on? This time, David Roberts carries everything on his face. At the beginning, he is a man who looks much too young for his gray hair. By the end, he looks a decade older.
The Square might move a little slower than audiences will like, but I can't say that I ever wanted it to end. Edgerton is so careful about his timing that you can almost always believe the wait will be worth the reward. He makes the vast majority modern thriller directors seem second rate. His control over his craft is remarkable. Did I mention he produced the film? And edited it? He also makes a brief appearance that most audience members are bound to miss. It brings to mind visions of Hitchcock.