The Square

“The Square,” a fiendishly gripping thriller from Australia about non-criminals who get sucked into a life of crime, plays out like one of those nightmares where things keep getting worse no matter what you do. That doesn’t sound like much of a selling point, though. “Come experience a movie that feels like a terrifying dream!” No, the fun lies in the fact that, well, it’s only a movie, and these people aren’t real. Some of them kind of deserve it anyway.

For example, there’s our “hero,” Raymond (David Roberts), a stone-faced construction supervisor who takes kickbacks from contractors and is cheating on his wife (Lucy Bell) with a woman named Carla (Claire van der Boom). Carla’s in a relationship, too, with a domineering dirtbag named Greg (Anthony Hayes), who comes home one day acting skittish because he has somehow obtained a duffel bag full of cash, which he hides above the ceiling tiles, unaware that Carla has seen it.

Carla and Ray have been wanting to run off together, and now here’s their chance. All they have to do is steal Greg’s money — which Greg surely stole anyway, given that it’s in a duffel bag hidden above the ceiling tiles — and skip town. Ah, but Greg would immediately notice the money was gone, and he’d have a pretty good guess who took it, since Carla would also be gone.

Obviously, Carla and Ray will need to burn down the house and let Greg assume the money was lost in the fire. Ray hires a pair of experienced criminals, Billy (Joel Edgerton) and Lily (Hanna Mangan Lawrence), and everything goes wrong from there.

The ancient tragedies were usually about someone who was basically good but who fell victim to a fatal flaw like pride or greed. That’s what makes it a tragedy: the fact that this dude was just like you or me, and then he screwed up, which you and I could do just as easily. In that sense, “The Square” (the title refers to Ray’s current construction project) is not a tragedy, because Ray is corrupt to begin with. He’s a dishonest businessman and an adulterous husband. The sensation we get watching his life unravel isn’t pity, but more like glee, or righteous indignation.

The pity is reserved for the people who become collateral damage to Ray and Carla’s plans. There are many. The film’s bleak, cautionary message is that when you set out to do evil, you’re bound to bring people down with you. Like many movies of this genre (“A Simple Plan,” “Fargo,” etc.), there is a certain dark humor to it all, if only because the plans goes so relentlessly awry that it almost becomes comical. Yet there remains that nightmarish quality, enhanced by the grim, steely performances, where the desperate characters think maybe they can still salvage this mess if they can only do X. Then they attempt X, and that goes wrong too, and now the mess is even worse than before. But maybe it’s still reparable! They just need to do Z! And so on.

The film was written by Joel Edgerton (who plays Billy) and Matthew Dabner, and directed by Joel’s brother Nash Edgerton. The Edgertons have made several shorts together, but this is their first feature. It’s an impressive debut. In a story about things going wrong, it’s tempting to employ ironic coincidences or symbolic failures. But in “The Square,” just as in real life, the world turns on ordinary events: a missed phone call, a slip of the tongue, a wrong impression. How enthralling it is to watch everything fall apart — from a safe distance, anyway.

A- (1 hr., 45 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, brief sexuality, brief strong violence.)