Late in The Square, after nearly everything seems to have gone wrong for him, Raymond Yale (David Roberts) sits at his desk, nervously sketching box after tiny box and filling each with a stick figure. As movie symbolism goes, it’s blunt: Raymond’s the man in the box, trapped as every action fails to set him free. The Square likewise traps audiences. This relentlessly bleak film thwarts every hope even as it appears, leaving the viewer trapped in an even smaller box.
The film opens on a brief moment of escape. Two lovers have an illicit rendezvous in a parked car. The car is a beige, four-door sedan, practical and unassuming. In a nearby van the lovers’ dogs watch, two emblems of the life responsibilities waiting outside the car. Afterwards, Raymond drives home to his upper middle-class home and his upper middle-class wife, who suspects but doesn’t confront him. He doesn’t bother to offer lies; he silently turns away from her.
His much younger lover—who is also his neighbor, across a pond—Carla (Claire van der Boom), returns to her home and husband, a plumber. Seeing him hide a satchel of money in the ceiling, she recognizes her chance for a permanent escape. She convinces Raymond to help her steal the money—he’s long promised to run away with her, but keeps deferring the actual getaway. This time he agrees to her plan, which, perhaps needless to say, is a Bad Idea.
Their simple plan becomes a murder, thanks in part to their hired thief, Billy (co-writer Joel Edgerton). Schemes begin to multiply and intertwine; the conspirators share many a lingering look. Yet it soon becomes apparent that in this film, virtually everyone is a conspirator of some kind. Everyone has a secret; everyone has suspicions. And in this frighteningly Hobbsian small town, everyone exerts leverage over one another. No wonder people want to get out.
But this never truly seems possible. Many commentators have compared The Square to early Coen brothers films, especially Blood Simple and Fargo, which share similar plotlines. Those films, however, offer potential escape: even with the screen rapidly filling with blood and bodies, it seems plausible that the protagonists just might get away with their crimes, whether they are inadvertent, understandable, or lowdown. For all their stylistic detachment, the Coens allow their characters a chance of happiness.
The Square, on the other hand, plays as a straight-line tragedy all the way through. But it’s not the Shakespearean tragedy it first appears, in which characters doom themselves through character flaws and bad decision-making. The Square has a much older model in mind: Greek tragedy, in which mortals are doomed for no reason at all. The caprice of the gods simply crushes some people. Events go from bad to worse, and then they get worse again. “One man points his dick in the wrong direction, and here we are,” Raymond’s boss explains near film’s end. It seems as reasonable a summation as any. (Of course, given the number of plots in play, he’s talking about the wrong man.)
The Square, then, portrays a universe not just indifferent to human endeavors, but actively hostile to them. In every scene, the air is heavy with menace. Each choice feels like gravity, drawing each individual to earth.