David Roberts, in 'The Square'

Dir. Nash Edgerton
(2010, R, 105 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

The Bag of Money Movie could inspire its own film festival, which would show how various filmmakers employ the oft-used prop to different ends. It would feature titles like Millions, Danny Boyle’s warm fable about children and saints; No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers’ masterpiece about the violence in the hearts of men; and Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic about a boy and his mother set off by doomed Marion Crane’s spontaneous act of greed. It was Hitchcock who popularized the term “MacGuffin,” used to describe an object or objective intended only to drive a story; throw the temptation of unsecured cash into the lives of a group of people and let human nature run its course.

The Square, an Australian thriller directed by Nash Edgerton, is a lean, mean new example of the genre that works because the fates of its characters are determined by who they were before there was any money to fight over. The central figures are Ray (David Roberts) and Carla (Claire van der Boom). They’re married to other people but carrying on an extramarital affair. She wants him to leave his wife. He promises he will, but it’s not the right time. You know how it goes.

Ray is corruptible to begin with. In addition to his affair, he’s a construction foreman negotiating a hefty kickback in the development of a leisure resort that includes the plot of land of the film’s title, which will become important later on. Nor is Carla a saint. Her husband, Smithy (Anthony Hayes), is a criminal and she knows it, and when she discovers the spoils of some unexplained caper, her first reaction is not surprise or fear, but an enterprising ambition to steal it. She’s a cunning young woman; she withholds affection from Ray until he agrees to help her.

Into the plot come arsonist-for-hire Billy (Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote the screenplay) and his sister Lily (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence), with whom a miscommunication leads to a fatal error. A single word from Lily might clear the air, but there’s a moment where Billy reacts violently to a horrific realization and the camera focuses on her, making us understand at once her choice to be silent; she’s paralyzed by guilt and fear.

Last is Smithy. He’s paranoid, which is a good survival trait for a criminal, and quick to anger, which usually isn’t. Into this motley crew of liars, cheaters, and thieves comes the possibility of a major windfall, and their downward spiral feels simultaneously chaotic and inevitable. Edgerton gives us a symbolic portent in the form of two dogs continually drawn to each other; in an ominous image, we see the lengths to which one will go for love, but sometimes you get in over your head.