From Mad Max to Crocodile Dundee, cinema’s Aussies are a famously tough—and often goofy—lot. So it’s no surprise that the absurdist-nihilist approach to noir popularized by Joel and Ethan Coen would have wormed its way Down Under. Another pair of brothers, director Nash and cowriter-costar Joel Edgerton, has taken that brooding genre and made it equally cheeky with The Square, an uneven but accomplished yarn that aspires to Blood Simple territory. All the genre’s conventions—femme fatale, shady goons, best-laid plans spiraling out of control—have a proper amount of verve and flair to make the whole package feel almost fresh.
But the challenge when dealing with a film noir narrative is that the male leads have to be cunning cads, know-it-alls who are blind to their own inextricable doom. Casting is key, yet David Roberts, as the love-struck dupe who lets his feelings for a restless housewife (Van der Boom) dictate his fate, is only intermittently convincing. Whether tough guy or coward, he never strikes the right balance to make it seem like he could outwit or intimidate anyone enough to get his way. And if your hero isn’t convincing, then your film never really is either.
What is impressive is the filmmaker’s facility with atmosphere, plus his ripe eye for giving blue-collar bruisers just enough dimension to make them more than mouth-breathing meatheads. As for the plot, shock twists abound with diminishing returns, though the final scene is a succession of delicious what-the?!? moments that will leave viewers smiling and wincing in equal measure.—Stephen Garrett
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