Tales of money, betrayal, lust and murder set in the underbelly of rural small town life are a major thematic strand of film noir. Australia’s contribution to this, released locally to mixed reviews in 2008, is The Square.
The location selected by first time director and writer Nash Edgerton is the central coast of New South Wales, where the laid back life-style and stunning countryside exist side by side with pockets of deep poverty and a highly casualised workforce.
The opening scene of The Square takes place at dawn. Two people are having sex in the back seat of a car to the accompanying drone of cars crossing a nearby overpass. They finish, pausing long enough for us to notice their wedding rings, before going their separate ways.
The man, Ray, pulls into a clearing in the middle of thick bushland and enters the portable office from which he is supervising the construction of a resort for honeymooners. The young woman, Carla, drives to her job in a hairdressing parlour.
Before long, Ray is getting a hard time down from Gil, the developer (long time Australian actor, Bill Hunter) for failing to keep costs down. There’s no need for anything fancy, Gil tells him, all they are building is a place were “couples can root in Jacuzzis”.
But it’s hard keeping costs down when you’re systematically embezzling the project, a fact we discover when Ray asks a concreter for a $40,000 kickback in exchange for giving him the contract to pour the resort’s foundation.
After work, Carla goes home to her husband, Greg, a tow truck driver with a nasty attitude, an old mother and a sports bag full of drug money he keeps in compartment in the roof of their laundry. It only takes one furtive glance of her husband handling the money for Carla to decide this is a deal changer. She suggests to Ray that they steal it and blow town together.
Ray hesitates, unsure how they can steal it without alerting her husband. “You’d have to burn the place down if you really want this money to disappear,” Ray says, adding that he’s joking. “I’m not,” she shoots back with a palpable sense of desperation.
When Ray equivocates further, Carla brings out one of the oldest plays in the book.
“This isn’t about money. I want you to do something. Something,” she says before storming off.
Ray eventually agrees to go along with Carla’s plan, meeting up with local arsonist Billy (co-writer, Joel Edgerton) in a Chinese restaurant. Billy makes small talk about the bull sharks that swim up from the sea into the town’s river, before agreeing to burn down the house for half his fee up front.
The crime is set to take place while the entire town (including Carla and her husband) is attending the local Christmas Carols by Candlelight. Carla has already removed the bag of money. But sipping chardonnay with his wife among the gum trees and fairy lights, Ray has second thoughts. He tries to abort the arson but fails when his mobile runs out of power.
Next thing Ray knows the local fire brigade, who have also been attending the festivities, are speeding off to attend to the blaze. What he doesn’t find out until next morning is that Greg’s mum was sleeping in the house as it burnt to the ground.
“Ray, we have killed someone, we’re murderers,” says Carla in genuine shock. Also alarmed is the arsonist, Billy, who only agreed to burn down a house, not murder someone. To make matters worse, Billy tells Ray in no uncertain terms he wants the rest of his money or else.
Carla’s husband has figured out the drug money was not in the house when it was burnt down and has his own suspicions about who took it. Meanwhile, Ray gets a Christmas card from an unknown source claiming to know what he and Carla did and asking for $10,000 or they’ll go to the police.
Ray believes the card is the work of a shifty local mechanic. The mechanic discovers Ray attempting to break into his house. The two men fight and Ray accidentally kills him and buries the body in the square of land that is soon to be the resort’s foundation.
Ray realises he has killed the wrong man when he gets another card. As if this isn’t bad enough, torrential rain is preventing the concrete from being poured, every hour increasing the possibility the mechanic’s body will be found.
For the most part, Edgerton handles the mounting complexity of cross and double cross well, building the tension gradually throughout the film. He only loses his grip in the finale, a bloody confrontation between Ray, Carla, her boyfriend and Billy the arsonist in the lounge room of Carla’s house. This scene has an almost Cohen brothers black comedy feel that is completely at odds with the stripped back neo-noir feel of the rest of the film.
While the script has its clunky moments, Edgerton also manages to get good performances from a cast of mostly relative unknowns.
David Roberts gives a good performance as a tightly wound everyman, whose greed and philandering have led him into events beyond his comprehension. He may be cunning, but he’s no match for the town’s redneck criminal underclass he suddenly finds himself up against.
Ray stumbles clueless throughout much of the film. The only thing saving him is the intervention of others, including his boss Gil, who in the process of discovering Ray is stealing from him, uncovers the real culprit behind the blackmailing Christmas cards.
Claire van der Boom is excellent as Carla. Although her character has many of the hallmarks of the classic small town femme fatale, she manages to inject much more into the role. While she is prepared to use her considerable sexual appeal to get what she wants, she manages to keep us guessing throughout the film about whether she’s just playing Ray or genuinely in love with him. Whatever the case, it’s impossible not to sympathise with her efforts to get more out of life than a dead end job and cooking dinner for her husband’s sleazy poker playing mates.
The Square is not a brilliant film. But despite its faults the movie is a worthy addition to the small club of Australian cinematic offerings that can claim some sort of noir status.
This piece originally appeared in Back Alley Noir’s Film Noir of the Week in July 2010.