Some movies are inscrutable, but at least this one is long and subtitled to boot. And I do mean long for this kind of movie; it clocks in at 150 minutes.
At best, The Square is a series of vignettes about man’s inhumanity and the definition and business of art, held together loosely by a single event. But that’s being somewhat generous. I think Ruben Östlund had aspirations of updating The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; assailing the limits of our willingness to intervene and help one another, and the taboos that sit at those boundaries. Frankly, he failed, giving us some nuggets of thought, but never grabbing us or pulling it all into a single, clarifying instant. The movie simply peters out, unresolved and unsatisfying. I guess Östlund would ask, did that make it art? His previous Force Majeure much more successfully ranged across humanity while focusing very specifically on individuals.
It isn’t that there aren’t some interesting questions in the film. And the peek behind the scenes of museum purchasing and marketing is interesting and disturbing, to be sure. But that isn’t enough to to make a movie. And if he wanted to turn the movie into a virtual square itself (which I do think he intended), Östlund should have begun and ended the film in 4:3 aspect rather than 16:9 to make the point.
The story is dominated by Claes Bang (The Bridge) whose awakening to the world around him is full of unrealized potential. He is clearly a well-to-do man in a position of power, and full of self-importance. Watching that surface erode, first with humor and, eventually with some humility, is intriguing. But we never connect with him in a way that makes us care. It is halfway through the tale before we even know he has kids; which is part of the point, I’m sure, but it just doesn’t work.
At the periphery of the story are Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake: China Girl) and Dominic West (Money Monster) who each bring a little of the outside world to Bang. They aren’t brilliant performances, but they’re probably the only faces you’ll recognize in the film.
One interesting, recurring bit part is played by Terry Notary. What makes it interesting is that he has stepped to our side of the motion capture suit to appear as human rather than as creature, as he has in Kong, Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit, etc. His casting is surely meant as another intended commentary on art, but you’d have to know who he is to even trip over the point.
Ultimately, this is a heck of a lot of time to spend in a world that is neither compelling nor fully realized. I can only think that the awards it won was due to people being duped into it being art, much like some of the odder installations in the movie itself (which isn’t to say those examples couldn’t be art, but even the story chips away at the core of that idea).
Personally, my though is that you could take the time you’d spend on this movie and see two other films that are much better…and you should.