I have read Sean Durkin's The Nest described as many things-an intense family drama, a character study, a horror film, a satire on the destructive allure of wealth-and what makes the film work is that it is all of those things simultaneously. Some may find that frustrating, as the film regularly changes registers and at times seems to be leading to payoffs that don't necessarily materialize. Yet, the overall effect is undeniably engaging, and the dramatic tension is so finely wrought and expertly sustained that it's hard to begrudge Durkin's choice to undermine expectations while also delivering a film with a clear moral about the tragedy of never being satisfied.
The film, which is set in the late 1980s, the era of banking deregulation and trickle-down economics, centers on the O'Hara family. The father, Rory (Jude Law), is an investment banker who moved to the U.S. a decade earlier when he married his wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and to start his own business. They have a teenage daughter, Sam (Oona Roche), from Allison's previous marriage, and an adolescent son, Ben (Charlie Shotwell), together. They seem happy enough, as Rory works from home and helps take care of the kids while Allison works for a stable where she trains horses and teaches riding lessons. Yet, there are small intimations that all is not well financially and maritally, and soon Rory is telling Allison that they need to move because his opportunities have dried up in the states and he knows that he can really break through if they move back to London and he returns to the firm he left 10 years earlier. Allison is reluctant, and we sense that these moves toward bigger and better opportunities are not new, but she eventually relents.
They pack up and move across the pond, where Rory seems to be doing fantastic in the world of British finance on the verge of massive Thatcherite deregulation. He is welcomed back by the firm's founder and CEO, Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin), and he moves his family into a massive manor on a sprawling estate where he begins building Allison her own stable so she can run her own business. The manor is way too large and much of it remains dark and empty, a stark contrast to the more conventional, suburban home they occupied in the U.S. The kids have trouble fitting into their new schools, as Sam takes up with a rowdy crowd and Ben struggles with the being awkward and bullied. The film drops various hints that something is not right in their manor-not that it's haunted necessarily, but that it is just some kind of bad place or perhaps is becoming a bad place because of Rory's overambitious desire to constantly climb higher on the ladder at the expense of everything around him-not just his family, but also any sense of propriety, dignity, and honesty.
Law's performance as Rory is extraordinary in its depiction of the desperate desire to keep moving up; for Rory, there is no success that will satiate him, and he is willing to do virtually anything to make that next deal. He talks and brags and cajoles those in his orbit, and it is an approach that works in the short term, but doesn't wear well in the long run. He is a portrait of unhappiness because there is nothing that will satisfy him, which is why he is so terrible at managing money and maintaining anything that resembles balance. No matter how well he is doing, he is always looking forward to the next big thing, which makes him at first seem energetic and determined, but later contemptible and finally just pathetic. He is both loathsome and pitiable, and the interplay of those dynamics is at the heart of Law's portrayal of a man who is constantly performing, pretending to be someone he isn't to impress others, spending money he doesn't have to appear wealthier than he is. He is, interestingly, similar to Matt Damon's eponymous antihero in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), in which Law played a golden rich boy who becomes the object of Ripley's obsession. In that film, Ripley explains his willingness to destroy lives to make his own better by saying, "I'd rather be a fake somebody, than a real nobody." Rory is a fake somebody who is terrified of being a real nobody.
Carrie Coon is equally impressive as Allison, a woman with her own mind and desires who nonetheless is constantly being pulled under and dragged along by Rory's momentum. Her increasing frustration and disgust with Rory aligns with our own, making her a kind of on-screen surrogate who Durkin expertly places within the broad widescreen frame to remind us of how she and Rory are constantly at odds, even if they often play at being on the same page. Her eventually rebellion against him in the most public means imaginable would be cathartic if it weren't all so sad.
And, if there is a horror in The Nest, it is not the horror of supernatural invasion or psychosis, which Durkin and cinematographer Mtys Erdly (Son of Saul) constantly suggest with wide, creeping shots that imply an unseen presence, but rather the horrors of insatiable economic ambition and the attendant misery that spreads like a virus. Durkin, whose previous feature was the engrossing drama Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), has a way with depicting extreme behaviors in muted tones (that film was about a young woman trying to deprogram from two years in a cultish commune); just as he showed how easy it was to be drawn into a cult and how hard it is to extricate oneself, in The Nest he dramatizes the allure of upward mobility and the destructive nature of always thinking that a better life is just around the corner, embedded in the next deal, the dividend of a future development. Whatever enjoyment Rory might get out of his life is blotted out by his inability to be in the moment, which is tragic for him and horrific for his wife and children. Durkin dabbles in suggestions of the supernatural, but any death and violence that ensues plays as a metaphoric outgrowth of Rory's relentless ambitions and sad lack of self-awareness. He is a Frankenstein in search of his next monster, and the film's tension is whether he and his family will survive it or be fundamentally destroyed.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © IFC Films
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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