Like most plans-gone-awry films, the true story of The Square begins with duffel full of money. Its origins are unknown—most certainly not decent—and are of no consequence. The bag itself doesn’t go on much of a journey, being transported from one hiding spot to another, where it remains for the rest of the film. However, like most characters who lay claim to a duffel full of indecent money, the protagonists in The Square are willing to ruin their lives over it—and then ruin them some more to try to dig themselves out of the holes they created.
In this case, Ray (David Roberts) and Carla (Claire van der Boom) are the ones involved in their own destruction. Neighbors in an Australian suburb, the two are involved in an affair. When Carla’s husband, Greg (Anthony Hayes), comes home with a sack full of money of indeterminate origin, Carla convinces Ray that they should steal it and take off to start a new life together.
No one, from the outset, is morally scrupulous. Besides cheating on his wife, it’s shown early that, as head of a construction project, Ray is susceptible to bribery. Greg hangs out with characters so unsavory that it convinces Carla that the money he brings home has dubious origins. No one in the film has pure intentions, so all of the misfortunes are a direct result of their own failings.
In unfolding these events, The Square is almost remarkable in its straightforwardness. It is unadorned, like a square—all straight lines and right angles. This isn’t a twist on the noir genre, or an attempt to update and recontextualize it. This is straight-up about bad things happening to bad people.
The filmmaking follows suit. The storytelling is linear, deliberate, and unfussy. As such, director Nash Edgerton lets the events unfold naturally and chronologically. He indulges in lingering takes, following each step the characters make and chronicling every tensed breath.
In one scene, Carla attempts to steal the duffel from the attic crawl space while Greg, jumpy and hyper-aware that he just planted the money himself, is still in the house with her. As they each attempt to go about their underhanded business while keeping tabs on the other, the camera swings back and forth between the two, rather than cutting.
When the cuts do come, they’re startling and jump the story forward quite a bit, sometimes into the middle of new action. This gives the audience the feeling that they’re always off-kilter—either one step ahead, leading the characters through the long scenes, or one step behind, chasing after them to figure out what happened during the cut. David Roberts as Ray gives away very little. If ever there were a poker face in cinema, this man has it. So, while the audience may feel his character unraveling, his performance of it is extremely subtle and introverted.
Once you fall into the rhythm of the movie, however, it starts to feel more stifling than exhilarating. The tension slackens once you realize that every scene ends with the worst possible outcome for the protagonists. (Even their dogs have it rough.) After a while, how it all shakes out no longer seems to matter. There’s no hope of anyone come out on top (let alone the main characters). In the end, it’s not just a noir—it’s utterly, hopelessly bleak.