Published Sep 18, 2020In 2011, Canadian director Sean Durkin brought us Martha Marcy May Marlene, a tale of an escaped cult member trying to transition back into regular family life. Nine years later, Durkin's second film (which he also wrote) reveals similar fixations. The Nest in a story of a regular family transitioning to a new country while under the sway of their charismatic, utterly misleading patriarch. It's a subject that suits Durkin and his outstanding cast, who are only held back by too much story crammed into too small a framework.
Jude Law and Carrie Coon are Rory and Allison, two supremely attractive parents to Samantha and Benjamin (Oona Roche and Charlie Shotwell, both excellent), living a middle-class existence in 1980s America. The spell of contentment breaks when commodities trader Rory tells Allison that his native London holds greater economic opportunities and they need to move. Under their cozy bedside chat is the sense that the other shoe of their marriage has just dropped, yet again. This is their fourth move in ten years, it turns out, and Allison's anxiety about money hints at Rory's past failures. Despite these reservations and her established job as a horse trainer, the family is soon uprooted. They arrive to find that Rory has secured them a ridiculously lavish country estate in Surrey where he can play lord of the manor and impress everyone who every doubted him — even if, as it proves, no one thinks about him very much at all.
Old, rambling mansions are never kind to small families in movies, and the abode in The Nest is ripe for haunting. Long, creepy hallways separate the characters physically, locked doors creak open, and the once-close foursome splinters, each holing up in a corner of the property to stew and resent the others. However, this is not The Others. Despite a sense of dread and the long shots of characters from afar suggesting a sinister watcher, the real horror of the film lies in their having to submit to Rory's ego. The kids speak brightly of their new lives to Dad, then let the mask drop behind closed doors. Allison's unwillingness to wear that mask quickly isolates her, and the family inches closer to imploding under the strain of making Rory feel like the provider that he isn't.
Even with the brewing familial tension, The Nest is sometimes a surprisingly relaxing watch. The pace is slow, and the '80s setting means there's time for backyard soccer and hanging around to tape songs by the Psychedelic Furs off the radio. Yearning pop contrasts and complements an original score done by Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry, who gives the old house a voice through mournful wind instruments in songs with names like "Drone Beast." Very cool.
Jude Law turns in a thoughtful and layered performance as a man torn between the attractions of status and the authentic love offered by his family, but the clear star is Carrie Coon (of Fargo renown). Sardonic, glamourous, and blunt, Coon comes from the same cinematic school as Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air and Virginia Madsen in Sideways — complex, sensual, subtle — but with the heavyweight gravitas of an Old Hollywood broad. Calmly watching her husband gaslight her in a restaurant they cannot afford, she proceeds to calls all his bluffs, bluffs that traditional wives are supposed to treat with reverence — then chugs straight from the vintage wine bottle and leaves him to sit in his own mess. It's electric.
With so much to chew on in the familial scenes — Benjamin is being bullied, Samantha explores British counterculture, Allison's horse is seemingly tortured by some invisible force — there's not enough room for anyone else to get their due diligence. It seems that the camera could begin to follow any side character to interesting results; Law's boss, his estranged mother, even the cab driver who takes Rory to task for his bad parenting, proving once again that character actors are Britain's greatest natural resource. The Nest as a miniseries would allow the talented cast to stretch their limbs and really explore the depths of Thatcher's England. As it is, The Nest is a tight, marvellously moody piece that proves that Durkin is only growing as a filmmaker — and hopefully, his next project will be quicker in fruition. (Elevation)