Ruben Östlund desperately wants to be a provocateur. With the Swedish director’s buzzy 2014 import, Force Majeure, he turned a split-second act by a husband into an ethically thorny briar patch of cowardice. It was one of those rare what-would-you-do movies that led to some truly awkward discussions after the lights came up. His latest serving of Scandinavian discomfort food, The Square (which won the top prize at Cannes this year), feels too calculated by half. It tries so hard to tweak the audience, it virtually breaks a sweat. Told in a series of vignettes, the pitch-black satire is essentially a character study of a middle-aged contemporary art museum curator named Christian (the excellent Claes Bang), who makes one staggeringly bad decision after another. Christian is a cool, confident master of the universe, and Bang, who looks like he’s ready to step into the shoes of a natty Bond villain (if not those of 007 himself), is so cocky that it’s only a matter of time until he’s brought low.
Östlund throws a barrage of Job-like trials at him: a stolen wallet that leads to a poorly hatched bit of vigilantism; a one-night stand with a journalist (Elisabeth Moss) who, inexplicably, lives with a chimp; a viral marketing stunt that backfires. Only half of these setups go anywhere very interesting. The rest just feel like button-pushing stunts that, like so much of the merry-prankster conceptual art Christian champions, zero in on your intellect rather than your gut. Or, better yet, your heart. B-