In his outstanding sophomore outing The Nest, writer-director Sean Durkin inverts this equation, taking a family already reeling from years of mistrust and instability and, instead of serving them up the typical ghosts and monsters, he uses the chilly setting to further exacerbate existing wounds.
As with his similarly brilliant debut, 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin examines frayed family dynamics within the structure of a slow-burn thriller where irrevocable tragedy is only a crooked look or misplaced insult away.
We meet the ambitious scoundrel Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) as he makes a call to an old employer and wakes his steely-eyed wife Allison (Carrie Coon) with the news that they’ll be moving back to his native London for a new job opportunity. It’s the “greed-is-good” era of the 1980s and Rory is hungrier than ever, even if this move marks their fourth in ten years.
Rory has essentially made the choice to pursue the position on his own, asking neither for permission nor forgiveness, but it doesn’t take long to learn that he and Allison are hardly on the same page about anything. As the pair “settle” into their dreary England estate with kids Sam (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell), resentment continues to build and the chasm of conflicting personalities between the four grows wider.
Richly conceived and near-flawlessly executed, The Nest truly is a triumph on every meaningful level of artistic merit. Durkin, who spent part of his childhood in 1980s South England, mines the more irksome cultural disparities between British and American life as just one of the pinpricks of malcontent that fracture the O’Hara clan.
With this groundwork in place, he constructs supremely well-observed characterizations within a fittingly economical screenplay that tells us everything we need to know about these people without a word of excess. The direction is brutally patient and tonally congruent, with Durkin beautifully demonstrating a balance between tension and release. Were this movie to play in theaters nationwide, I would fully expect jeers akin to “Don’t go in that room!” from audiences, only adapted for a chilly story of domestic strife rather than a jump scare-laden horror movie.
In roles that are perfectly attuned to the strengths of the actors, Coon and Law do some of the most wrenching and compelling work of their already accomplished careers.
Law’s performance recalls the charming deception of his Talented Mr. Ripley character Dickie Greenleaf, but he trades Dickie’s carefree spirit for Rory’s palpably desperate sense of determination that is sickeningly enthralling to behold.
Coon is equally electrifying as a no-nonsense horse trainer who is in lock-step with her compliant stallion but can’t seem to put the reins on her recklessly impulsive husband. Their inevitable scenes of verbal conflict match the bruising staying power of the culminating scene from last year’s Marriage Story, though I doubt The Nest will inspire nearly as many misbegotten memes.
In one of the year’s most hypnotically effective musical scores, composer and Arcade Fire band member Richard Reed Parry pits discordant piano against apprehensive woodwinds to musically mirror the story’s central conflict. The diegetic soundtrack aptly interpolates ’80s hits like the wistful Thompson Twins track “Hold Me Now” and, in a particularly cathartic sequence, the ebullient Communards dance tune “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”
It’s been nine long years since Sean Durkin broke out with Martha Marcy May Marlene. If he has more films in him with a quality level similar to The Nest, I hope we won’t have to wait nine more for his next mesmerizing masterpiece.
New movies to stream this weekend
Available to watch on Hulu is Run, a suspense thriller from the director of Searching starring Sarah Paulson and Kiera Allen about a homeschooled teenager who begins to suspect her mother is keeping a dark secret from her.
Out for digital rental is Jiu Jitsu, a martial arts fantasy starring Tony Jaa and Nicolas Cage about an ancient order of expert fighters who must square off against a vicious race of alien invaders in a battle for Earth.
Debuting next Tuesday on Netflix is Hillbilly Elegy, a Ron Howard drama starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams about a law student drawn back to his hometown as he grapples with his Appalachian family’s struggles.