It doesn’t take long to realize that The Nest‘s title is meant in a sarcastic sense. Nobody would ever think of the film’s primary location — a vividly gloomy, rundown mansion in Surrey, England — as cozy or nurturing, much less as the ideal place to raise a family. Still, that’s where ambitious patriarch Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) drags his otherwise American family after he lands a job in his native country, which he’d apparently left many years earlier. Set sometime during the Reagan-era, The Nest impassively observes the emotional upheaval that this trans-Atlantic move inspires, with a special emphasis on the anxiety of inhabiting a house that seems designed for about fifty people who are all at least one-hundred times richer than you. For Rory’s wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and the couple’s two kids (Oona Roche and Charlie Shotwell), it’s an extreme version of culture shock, exacerbated by Rory’s increasingly desperate, delusional effort to make it work.
It’s been nine long years since The Nest‘s writer-director, Sean Durkin, made a splash with his fantastic feature debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene. That film was fundamentally a triumph of atmosphere and editing, cutting back and forth between different time periods in a way that made past and present feel interchangeable. Here, Durkin has teamed up with the great Hungarian cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, and together they’ve fashioned something remarkable: an utterly non-supernatural haunted house story. Nothing overly creepy or menacing ever happens, with the exception of one moment in which a door is mysteriously open after Allison is sure that she’d locked it. Yet The Nest deliberately replicates the ominous look and feel of one of the great slow-burn horror films of the ’70s, with establishing shots held just a beat too long, shadows that swallow up corners of the room, and physical distance between characters that generates constant free-floating unease. This approach may well frustrate genre buffs who jump to the wrong conclusion early on, but it provides a hefty atmosphere to all the proceedings.
Durkin, who was born in 1981, lived in Surrey himself as a child (albeit not in a mansion), and reportedly based the screenplay in part on his own memories. Without indulging in cheap signifiers, the film accurately remembers countless details from the ’80s (one moment that involves recording a song on the radio/cassette deck is finitely authentic). But the period isn’t overly important, except perhaps insofar as it gives Allison even more reasons to feel perpetually belittled. (Introduced at a posh function as “Mr. and Mrs. Rory O’Hara,” she shakes someone’s hand and politely adds, “My name is Allison — that might have been confusing.”) What matters is the sense of dislocation, which is newly corrosive to most of the family (including Allison’s heavily metaphorical horse, Richmond) but has seemingly plagued Rory for his entire life. It’s as if Rory, who’s wracked with heaping insecurities and is always seemingly putting on a performance for his richer friends, felt an unconscious need to impose the burden he carries onto his loved ones, and the only way he could think to do so was to relocate them somewhere that they clearly don’t belong. Now everybody’s got imposter syndrome!
Even if you’re not entirely sold by the idea of an alienation drama shot as if it were The Others (and why the hell wouldn’t you be?!), The Nest, at the bare minimum, is well worth seeing just for its two central performances. Six years after her galvanizing supporting turn in Gone Girl, Coon finally gets a big-screen lead role worthy of her brittle genius; Allison takes no nonsense from anyone, least of all from herself, and Coon delivers a performance of minute detail. Law is maybe even more impressive, making Rory aggressively hearty and jovial with an unmistakable undercurrent of self-loathing. Still, The Nest‘s true star might be the cavernous 15th-century mansion, which provides Durkin and Erdély with endless opportunities (thanks to their masterful use of space) to carve out sinister voids that threaten to swallow this nuclear family whole. It’s that remarkable level of poise and formalism that is so compelling that you won’t be able to rip your eyes off the screen.
Overall, The Nest clocks in at a brisk hour-and-forty-five minutes. But in your memory, it feels much longer (in very much a good way), because every scene, moment, line, and gesture stands for so many things at once, and exists on so many levels at once, without ever feeling overly stated. The result ranks the film among cinema’s best martial stories. The final scene — set, as in so many perfect movies about the complexity of family relationships, at the breakfast table — is just right. It ends on a note of potentiality, not certainty. This lets viewers argue for or against the possibility of the central marriage repairing itself or accepting failure and moving on.
By the time that final scene arrives, the parents, the children, and the audience are in alignment about the state of things. The sort of relief that accompanies such a realization lets a tale of escalating discomfort end on a note of, well, not “hope,” exactly. Which feels more in line with a sense of realism, a sense of acceptance. Like driving around in a car that’s been neglected for months or even years that has a lot things wrong with it, then finally admitting — on the side of the road, on a dark rainy night — that you’d ignored warning signs for too long, and have no one to blame for this disaster but yourself. This isn’t a movie where you really root for any particular character. It’s not the sort of movie that cares whether you approve of its characters — only that you understand them. It was Russian writer Leo Tolstoy who wrote about how “all happy families are all alike.” But Durkin’s magnificent downer ultimately suggests that there might not be any such thing as a truly happy family — at least none that are not built on lies. The cuckoo that comes home to roost in The Nest is the idea that maybe there are only unhappy families and ones that haven’t called each other out on their mutually reinforcing BS yet. It’s an unforgettable, unshakable, and potent notion. With surgical-like precision, Sean Durkin, in The Nest, dissects the anatomy of a family with a chilled, ominous, and immersive razor; a work equally in parts clinically devastating and hauntingly gorgeous.
The Nest is currently playing in Select Theaters and will be available on VOD on November 17th