The title of Nash Edgerton’s debut feature, The Square, is baldly generic and unrevealing, but like the film itself, it unfolds impressively over time. In one reading, the square is David Roberts, a quiet, seemingly straitlaced man supervising a construction site in Sydney, Australia. In another, it’s the as-yet-unbuilt concrete plaza dominating his current worksite, which becomes a symbol of his frustration and impotence. And in a third reading, it describes his romantic life, which is one step more complicated than a mere love triangle. He’s having an affair with a vivacious younger hairdresser (Claire van der Boom); his marriage may end if his prim wife catches them, but if van der Boom’s thuggish husband (Anthony Hayes) finds out, the consequences will likely be more severe and hands-on. Unfortunately, their small neighborhood is a tight community where nothing stays hidden for long.
The Square lurches into noir territory when van der Boom spots Hayes concealing a gym bag crammed full of cash and bloody towels, and decides she and Roberts should steal the money and run off together. Roberts is awaiting a $40,000 kickback at work and doesn’t want to rock the boat, but doesn’t want to reveal his scheme to van der Boom, either. So to prove his devotion, he gives in to a plot that would put the money in their hands and cover their tracks. Naturally, things go awry, and in the manner of such movies, the first bad decision inevitably leads to progressively queasier ones. By the time someone attempts to blackmail Roberts, he doesn’t even know which secret his enemy is threatening to expose.
That plot complexity is one of The Square’s major appeals, but it’s par for the course in the noir-thriller genre. Rarer and equally appealing is the film’s restraint and ambiguity, both in the details—it’s never clear how Hayes acquired that blood-streaked money, for instance—and in the complex moral tone, which makes virtually every character culpable, and regards a gun-toting freelance arsonist (Joel Edgerton, Nash’s brother, co-writer, and co-producer) with the same blended sympathy and antipathy it lavishes on Roberts and van der Boom’s compromised lovers. With her soft young Ellen Page face and obvious naïve desperation, van der Boom isn’t much of a femme fatale, but she suffices for a story that’s grittier and less heightened than most noirs, and Roberts is equally compelling as a man in over his head. The occasional missteps (some overly precious symbolism, the grimy DV look) rarely get in the way of the film’s many winces, gasps, and breathless, cringing anticipation.