Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017) isn’t the most riveting of his films, but unlike Triangle of Sadness—a gripping spectacle that occasionally overplayed its hand—it has a sneaky subtlety, which helps its message resonate more powerfully. It concerns a well meaning, wealthy modern art museum curator named Christian (Claes Bang), whose privileged life hits turbulence during a campaign to promote a new exhibit called “The Square.” The exhibit boasts an artist’s mission statement: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” It’s a metaphor for society, for human community and what we owe each other, and if Christian and the museum approach that message with a certain pretentious disconnect—well, their hearts are in the right place. But when Christian is victimized in a confidence game on the streets of Stockholm, it sets off an unpredictable chain of events, leading to moral and ethical dilemmas that force him to put his alleged values to the test in the real world.
Composed of numerous patient, cringy scenes that turn cumulative emotional effect into piercing social critique, The Square is a satirical triumph. Östlund’s talent for incisive provocation is on full display as he skewers the art world—and perhaps, by extension, his role in it—by turning an artsy lens on thorny issues of class, race, and economic inequality. As its key figure, Bang—who kills it as a next-level shitheel in the series Bad Sisters—is sensational. Christian is a marvel of hypocritical contradiction: a kind father, an intellectual progressive, a patron of the arts, but also blind to his own blinkered advantages and selfish impulses. His devilish charisma gradually falls away as his ordeal extends, and Bang plays it superbly. Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West turn up to deliver crucial supporting turns, but it’s Terry Notary who steals the show, pushing the envelope as a mock-simian performance artist. His setpiece scene is brilliantly horrific, a gruesome indictment of upper-class passivity in the face of injustice. It’s a blunt-instrument moment in an otherwise nuanced film, shining light on the awkwardly mounting lessons that Christian, ultimately, fails to learn. It may take some patience for film’s effect to sink in, but by the end, Östlund’s provocations add up to something quite sharp and powerful.