In the nine years since Sean Durkin released the incredible 'Martha Marcy May Marlene', the young director has produced features with his Borderline Films collective, including 'Simon Killer', 'Christine', and 'The Eyes of My Mother', directed the 2013 Channel 4 drama 'Southcliffe', and knocked out a Sharon Van Etten music video. Now, he's returning to the big screen with 'The Nest', a domestic drama starring the formidable duo of Jude Law and Carrie Coon.
Rory (Jude Law, 'The Rhythm Section', 'A Rainy Day in New York'), an ambitious entrepreneur and former commodities broker, persuades his horse trainer American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon, 'Avengers: Infinity War', 'Widows'), and their children to leave the comforts of suburban America and return to his native England during the 1980s. Sensing opportunity, Rory rejoins his former firm and leases a centuries-old country manor, with grounds for Allison's horses and plans to build a stable. Soon the promise of a lucrative new beginning starts to unravel, and the couple have to face the unwelcome truths lying beneath the surface of their marriage.
Is Rory overextending himself at his new brokerage firm and, in turn, overextending his family? Is Allison truly happy with all the constant changes and moving, or is she just burying her sadness by caring for her lovely horse, Richmond? Can their two children see the wreckage from their much younger yet still highly perceptive perch?
Durkin has a singular style that really appeals to my sensibilities - it's dark, earthy, and not all that flashy. He brings restraint and unfashionable subtlety to his material, while the cinematography by Mátyás Erdély ('James White', 'Son of Saul') is incredibly haunting. Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry, who makes his feature film scoring debut on the project, is smooth and intuitive - double bass collides with dissonant strings, crashing piano chords and cymbals to create a sound that's not unlike the feeling of losing yourself in a fancy party you realise far too late you weren't invited to.
Despite a lack of plot beats, I was invested. There are no literal skeletons lurching out of closets, or really anything that would send butts from seats or popcorn flying. The most conventionally frightening thing about 'The Nest' is its setting: a sprawling, dilapidated Surrey mansion. It's far too big for the family of four, and its looming spaces threaten to swallow them whole. Built in the mid-12th century, when it loomed as a pillar of wealth and glamour, the structure is a hollow shell - a reflection of the shining image and fading fortunes of its current owners. The manor house is, in effect, a remorseless and brutally honest mirror.
'The Nest' touches on the Reagan/Thatcher deregulation era and the emptiness of the illusory American Dream hope that it birthed. It's about the utter superficiality and emptiness of that materialist culture. In the film, Rory gets the things shipped from their U.S. house, particularly the design pieces he had bought in New York, only to find that the American style furniture stands out awkwardly in their English home. Eventually, everything comes crashing down because of Rory's delusional, self-destructive, and fraudulent ambitions.
This is Law's best performance in years - maybe ever - and he's been a busy man putting out good work. Rory has a chip on his shoulder, a youthful scar from his upbringing that makes him sprint continuously at his job when he could easily survive with a jog. He's a fast-talking hustler in the broker community, someone always hedging bets for a big score - but one who doesn't think about the other side of the equation: failure.
Coon is subtle, ferocious, chillingly direct, anxious and shattered at the same time.
As Rory reveals to a cab driver late in the film, he just pretends to be rich. That pretentious gaze only cripples his marriage and leaves his kids out in the cold wondering what's wrong. If you've ever worked in a sales environment, you'll know that lies not only damage the ability of salespeople to communicate with their clients, they can also result in a complete communication breakdown that is difficult - or even impossible - to repair. In Rory's case, this bleeds over into his personal relationships.
I loved Oona Roche and Charlie Shotwell as the kids here, even if the performers quickly remind you their talent doesn't match their birth year. They rely on facial expressions and just the right bits of dialogue to get across their point of view.
Coon is subtle, ferocious, chillingly direct, anxious and shattered (there is a devastating scene involving her horse) at the same time. She could have turned Allison into a whiny housewife who doesn't care for Rory's decision-making skills, but she decided to make the wife the smartest person in the room. You see, when spouses live together for years, they begin to download each other's patterns, moods, and disguise tactics. There is an excruciating scene where Allison exposes Rory's pretentious tall tales at a dinner meeting with a potential client that might be my favourite moment in the film.
Allison knows Rory better than anyone else, and the two actors have some fun speeding down that cinematic road. You will try and guess where 'The Nest' is going - but trust me, you'll be wrong. It has plenty of surprises, but not the kind of shockers one is going in prepped for. The sort of neglect and bad intentions that lead to multiple big fights and lashing out. It's juicy material and the cast sink their teeth into it.
What Durkin serves up here is hardcore family drama, but the kind that is rooted in realism, like Mike Leigh's 'Secrets & Lies' by way of Matthew Weiner's 'Mad Men', with some of Mike Nichol's 'Closer' thrown in. It's the sort of film that doesn't usually exist, living outside of genre convention and financial requirements in studio filmmaking. But 'The Nest', like that towering manor house, casts its own foreboding spell. And it identifies a hostile spirit that can't so easily be exorcised: curdled relationships going bump in the dark.