The Nest (2020)
Written & Directed by Sean Durkin
It’s been a full decade since Sean Durkin’s last film, Martha Marcy May Marlene. That movie was the subject of my first and so far only Cinematic Immersion Tank, an experiment where I watched the same film for five days in a row and recorded my evolving thoughts and interpretations. I am a big fan of Durkin’s work and was highly anticipating this picture. The two lead cast members are fantastic actors, and Durkin knows how to build compelling character-centered dramas that border on psychological horror. He most certainly lives up to this with The Nest.
Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) is an unsatisfied, restless man. He’s married to Allison (Carrie Coon), an American, and has a son with her and raising her daughter as his own. They have a quiet life in the suburbs of New York, but Rory wants to go after something more significant. He tells Allison his old boss in London wants him to come back to help run the investment firm. Allison is a bit hesitant because this is a standard for Rory, suddenly becoming dissatisfied and packing everyone up to move elsewhere. She gives in, and soon the family finds themselves living in a huge old mansion in Surrey, way too large for their family of four. Their secluded location creates problems both for getting to school and work and creates a growing sense of isolation that wears on everyone. Allison becomes increasingly annoyed with the ostentatious lies Rory spews to impress colleagues and clients. It becomes clear that their marriage and the family are headed toward an implosion.
What I love most about Durkin’s films is the way he builds mood while still communicating vital information about his characters in subtle ways. There’s a sense of the ominous from the first shot of the picture, Rory looking out a window in the house while making a phone call that sounds like a bridge is being burnt. He’s already focused on the possibilities rather than securing the present. When they arrive at the house in Surrey, we can see that this manor house will be a terrible place for the family. The son rushes down hallways at night, afraid of the dark corridors between his sister’s room and his own. Allison’s horse arrived from the States behaves erratically, refusing to follow commands portending some horrible events to come.
These are richly complicated characters that most audiences aren’t going to love immediately, but we should all relate to them. Rory comes from a background of poverty and is hungry to become someone whom others are impressed by, but the schtick has gone on for so long he’s looped back around to the people he first played. They don’t buy his phony bravado for a second, and we see him crack. Allison loves the hunger in Rory but also understand it will destroy them. Early on in the film, we see she has a box where she keeps thousands in cash. Later we find out Rory knows about this, but the understanding is she keeps its location a secret so that when Rory inevitably overleverages things and starts writing bad checks, she can swoop in and protect him.
Jude Law continues his run of fantastic roles in this second act of his career. He has such a remarkable talent for playing tarnished golden boys, something he probably relates to in one regard or another. When things begin to crumble in his hands, he’s able to exude sweaty desperation and failure that you feel in your bones. In turn, Carrie Coon is the stable force who is also crumbling. She mentions this is their fifth move in ten years, and we don’t get many details about her daughter’s father though we can pick up on hints that it was an abusive relationship. When something terrible happens at their new home, it is the crack in everything that causes Allison to lose her cool, and even the kids know something is very wrong.
Durkin imbues the picture with a sense of something supernatural and sinister always on the fringes. The Nest never entirely goes over that cliff into being overtly horror, but we can feel that the house symbolizes a big hollow, cold, empty thing that this family has become. Dread creeps in as characters are so isolated and begin verbally lashing out at each other. However, Durkin leaves things on an ambiguous note. We don’t know where this family goes from here. It seems like this pattern of being nomads at Rory’s whims is over, but so much damage has been done we’re not sure if they all will make it.