The Square

The Square puzzled me in a number of matters, and the first confronted me as I walked into the theater.  There on a tiny screen was a bouncing blu-ray logo.  A man walked in to start the movie from a dvd/blu-ray console at the front of the theater and informed us that he would stick around for a minute to see if we wanted the volume adjusted.  If it hadn’t been clear from the start, it was now: The Square was not a major release.  Further research revealed that the Aussie thriller was originally released in 2008.  Since then, it had wandered through a parade of film festivals and finally been granted a limited domestic release.  I don’t know what kind of back-door dealings decide the distribution fates of foreign films, but the movie I saw, though flawed, deserved better treatment than it received.

The Square is dark.  I know there were daytime scenes, but I never got the feeling that the sun was shining.  This isn’t the feel-good movie of the year.  But viewer discomfort is all part of the plan; careful sound editing and subtle choices in cinematography conspire to draw viewers close as unpleasant events cascade across the screen.  Music very rarely interrupts the rhythmic, calculated alternation of conversation and silence.  The movie often achieves that rare trick of making audience members forget their surroundings.

No single standout performance among the cast merits attention, but the overall result made the best of a troubled script- see below.  Opinions on the acting will revolve on whether the viewer cares for lead actor David Roberts.  His deeply set features leave him with a narrow range of expression, but as someone bothered more often by over-acting than by the other extreme, I found his performance enjoyable.

The Square deserves one more round of accolades before I point out its failings.  For its middling runtime, The Square manages to develop a number of characters.  None of the important players come across as merely good or evil; gray is the shade of the day.  So while Roberts does soak up a majority of the screen time, The Square often feels like an ensemble film.

So where does it fall apart?  A few key factors keep this neo-noir feature from top shelf status.  The script occasionally resorts to tired cliches you’ve seen in ten other movies.  I remember on two separate occasions knowing exactly what a character was about to do and hoping against hope that the screenwriters had something less hackneyed in mind.  I was disappointed both times.  Perhaps more importantly, questionable character motivations make a mockery of the painstaking effort put into the film’s technical aspects.  But the movie would have been over in 20 minutes if the characters had made rational decisions, and I’m definitely glad that the latter 80 minutes exist.  Finally, the film does run into a slow patch at the 30 minute mark, but mysterious events pull it from the bogs and carry it the rest of the distance.

A select group of movie enthusiasts is going to love The Square.  Moviegoers that don’t mind rooting for protagonists with questionable motives and fancy the stylings of the Coen Brothers will likely wonder why they’d never heard of this gloomy picture from the land down under.  And even though I can’t unsee the film’s shortcomings, I can’t help but admire the trust the film places in its cinematography to tell an engaging story. 7.5/10

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