With his first feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, writer/director Sean Durkin told a harrowing story about sisterhood—both blood relations and the kind you choose (in the case of that film, it came in the form of a cult). With his latest, The Nest, familial bonds are still the order of the day, but this time, the key relationships are mother-daughter, and how we often fight hard to be different from the people who raised us and frequently run headfirst into turning out remarkably similar. The Nest is about a great deal more than that, which is why it’s one of the most haunting and impressive works of the year.
A standout at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the movie is set sometime in the mid- to late 1980s. Strangely enough, I don’t believe the time period is ever explicitly mentioned, but there are enough clues to bring out the forensic investigator in all of us to figure it out. We start out in America, where British entrepreneur Rory (Jude Law) is contemplating a major career shift. He’s made his first million, and truly enjoys his very comfortable life with his American wife Allison (Carrie Coon), a horse trainer to the leisure class, and their two kids, Samantha (Oona Roche) and Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell), whom I suspect is a stand-in for the filmmaker, based on his biography and age in the late ’80s.
Rory wants to return to his job as a commodities broker in London, working for Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin), where he was able to let his ambition run a bit wild years earlier, with impressive payoffs. He sees the writing on the wall as far as deregulation in the UK and sees money to be made, and while Allison isn’t happy with the decision, the family picks up and moves to a ridiculously palatial manor outside the city with enough room for Allison to restart her training business. When the family gets a look at the place, many of their reservations about the move evaporate. But before long, other concerns take their place, and that is what The Nest gets so right. Conflict rarely just springs up from nothing; they are slowly creeping things that take a while to get into the blood and even longer to cause that blood to boil over.
Rory has clearly over-extended himself financially and while he’s a good husband and father doing what he thinks is best for the family, he can’t escape the need to seem like a bigger deal than he is to his clients and co-workers, talking about vacation spots he’s never visited or material goods he can’t afford. When Allison catches him in one of these seemingly harmless lies, it causes a shift in their dynamic, and she begins looking for other examples of her husband not being honest about money. She stashes money away in a hiding spot, and sure enough, he comes to her looking for “walking-around” money because their bank account is near empty. And before long, the cracks in their seemingly strong foundation begin to show and the distrust grows exponentially. And like all children do, the kids are always somehow aware that their parents are in trouble and there’s very little they can do to fix it, leaving them feeling helpless and traumatized as their already isolated world closes in on them.
The Nest captures that solitude so beautifully, from the stark and washed-out look provided by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély to the way their home seems to feel like a prison at times. There’s even a hint that the place may be haunted, but that feeling might also be the result of an overwhelming sense of loneliness that dominates the surroundings.
The film also harnesses the ambition and greed that seemed to dominate the business world in the period in which it’s set, and it seeks to explore why Rory seemed so eager to leave the UK behind as a younger man. In just a single scene in which he visits his estranged mother, we learn so much about the hell he was born into that much about his life and personality begins to make sense. This sense of empathy extends to Allison as well during a bookend scene near the beginning of the film where we see her drinking wine with her mother. Once again, with not many words, but an exchange of attitudes, we learn a great deal about the values with which she was raised and why she resists and resents the idea that Rory might expect her to take on more a traditional housewife role after their move.
The mother-daughter themes run deepest between Allison and Samantha, who seem to actively dislike each other and can’t seem to find a common language upon which to begin negotiating a kind of peace. Coon is so note-perfect here as a woman attempting to re-establish her place in both the world and within her own family, as she feels the balanced relationship she once shared with Rory has been thrown off. She clearly has some issues with the spoils of his successes, but isn’t quite clear how to deal with his potential for failure.
There is a great deal of information not explicitly stated but still understood about each character, and Durkin is adept at giving us just enough to complete the picture of each person and situation. He allows us to spend time with the family when things are good, and isn’t the least bit concerned with forgoing plot for long stretches, which helps us settle into the lifestyle before ripping the rug out from under us. He also isn’t afraid to let us hear Rory in his workplace environment, where he is a completely different animal—one that’s more ferocious and bloodthirsty. Law slips in and out of Rory’s various personas effortlessly, and it’s clear he’s an actor we take for granted far too often. The Nest is sometimes an uncomfortable watch and certain observations might hit a bit too close to home for some, but it’s an immensely accomplished work with some of the finest performances you’ll see all year.
The film opens theatrically on Friday at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and the Kerasotes Showplace Icon 16; it will be available via VOD on November 17. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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