Film Review: “The Nest” — More Is Less
By Peg Aloi
The Nest is a personal story — unsettling, beautiful, moving and haunting — about that most public of sins: greed.
The Nest, written, directed, and produced by Sean Durkin. Streaming on most major digital and cable platforms via VOD from November 17.
In the 1980s, bigger was sold to be better. More money, fancy mansions, designer clothes, gourmet food, pricey bars, and rampant partying with plenty of drugs and high-end alcohol. Having lived through this era myself, and seeing its excesses firsthand, it’s safe to say the Yuppie era catalyzed a new social demimonde: self-indulgent consumption was dangled before the public at large, whether they could access it or not. Given so much ostentatious taunting, with its concomitant yearning for upward mobility, ugly entitlement inevitably followed. As a country we’ve been on a downward trajectory since then. Call it Reaganism if you like, or call it Thatcherism: filmmaker Sean Durkin’s new film offers an uneasy hybrid of both forms of selfishness.
Jude Law plays Rory O’Hara, a transplanted Brit married to Allison (Carrie Coon). He’s a stepfather to her teenage daughter Samantha (Oona Roche) and father to their 10-year old son Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell). They live in a perfectly lovely suburban brick house in a suburb outside of New York City, with a Volvo sedan and a Jeep Suburban in the driveway. She works for a horse stable where she manages the riding lessons and enjoys access to the horses, including her favorite, a black beauty named Richmond.
As the film opens, to strains of smooth, unobtrusive jazz, we view the family’s house through autumn leaves. Rory wakes Allison each morning with a kiss and a mug of coffee. There are dreamy scenes of Allison working with horses, family dinners, and Rory sitting at his desk, staring blankly. When Rory, a commodities broker, tells her he thinks they should move because his work opportunities are drying up, Allison’s surprised and annoyed. She reminds him they’ve moved several times in the last decade. Rory insists he has an excellent opportunity in London, and convinces her they need to take it. After a brief goodbye dinner with Allison’s family, with whom she’s close, the family packs up for the transcontinental move. Richmond, bucking and snorting, is put in a trailer to be shipped abroad as well. The horse’s loud protests feel like a warning.
Rory has rented a grand 18th-century mansion with vast grounds in the Surrey countryside. He greets Allison with a new full length chinchilla coat, and promises her they will have horse stables built for her. The kids start at the best private schools in the area. Rory returns to work at his old London firm; his boss and former coworkers are excited to have him back. From the remote location, every activity becomes a fraught commute. Richmond arrives and the stable construction begins. Allison is thrilled; she and Rory have intense sex. Despite that, the enormous house feels overpowering: Allison keeps rearranging one small seating area; Sam blasts New Wave music in her bedroom; Ben is afraid to walk through the dark hallways at night. The excitement of a new beginning wears off as the family members realize that they don’t know how to fit into this grandiose lifestyle. Allison discovers that Rory’s new job, with its huge expenditures, has placed them in precarious straits. The foundation of the marriage, based on willfully ignored truths, starts to collapse. Richmond squeals in distress from his stall at night, unheard by his loving caretaker because the house is too far away. A series of small tragedies piles on top of simmering guilt, fear, and regret.
This is a story of a family that implodes in the face of unexamined desires. Is it greed that tears us apart? Or the inability to realize what we really want? It’s tempting to call this a fable or allegory that distills the materialistic, ruthless spirit of the ’80s, the furies glimpsed in films such as The Wolf of Wall Street, Trading Places, Wall Street, Working Girl, Broadcast News, and others. But there’s a tragic intimacy here. Director Sean Durkin has crafted deceptively naturalistic moments that reveal intriguing glimpses of people who find themselves living a glamorous, fairy-tale life they’re not sure they want. His debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, was a slow-burning thriller about a young woman caught up in a strange rural cult. He has followed up that impressive effort with a film that is a bit harder to access, despite its specific time frame. The actors aren’t at fault here: Law continues to impress with his mid-career choice of roles. Coons gives a close-hewn performance of a woman whose life implodes after she realizes that she was, literally, sold a bill of goods. Roche is perfect as a kindhearted girl who becomes sullen in an unfamiliar environment. Shotwell turns in an understated but brilliant performance as shy, sensitive Ben.
The Nest would be best seen on a big screen, but alas, the times we live in make this difficult. The ironic cinematography by Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul) makes the grandiosity of the setting come off as intimidatingly claustrophobic. There’s a wild scene where Sam throws a party for a bunch of local teens: the naturalistic mayhem is almost reminiscent of the authentic tour de force party sequence in Olivier Assayas’ early masterpiece Cold Water. The music is pitch perfect: an original score by Richard Reed Parry (his debut as a feature film composer) delivers a moody soundscape. So, despite its somewhat aloof quality, this is a film worth savoring and watching closely — not to appreciate any intricacies of plot, but for unexpected epiphanies. Occasional touches of horror make it hard to pin the film down in terms of genre or even narrative. But Durkin has shown us already that he has a gift for exposing humanity’s dark edges, what lurks beneath respectability and good intentions. The Nest is a deeply personal story — unsettling, beautiful, moving, and haunting — about that most public of sins: greed.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.