Without the occasional radios playing throughout The Nest – Sean Durkin’s newst film since 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene – one might not even know this film was set in the 1980s. Every once in a while The Cure will come blaring from a boombox or a mention of Ronald Reagan will remind this is a story about the past. But no reminder works quite as well as during a party late in the film, as Durkin focuses in on Samantha (Oona Roche), clearly not having a good time, surrounded by people as New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” plays. For the first time, the music feels like a Greek chorus – led by Bernard Sumner – as the lyrics say, “Whenever I get this way, I just don’t know what to say, why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday?” It is a simple refrain that summarizes the film.
In The Nest, Rory (Jude Law) is a Londoner who moved to the United States and married Allison (Carrie Coon). Yet Rory’s job as a commodities broker hasn’t taken off, so he decides to move his wife and their two kids, Samantha and Rory (Charlie Shotwell) back to the English coutnry in a massive, dusty estate. The palatial home makes The Nest feel like a haunted house film with no ghosts, as the four members of the family maneuver around with too much room to spare.
Yet each of these character holds with them their own specter of the past that haunts them. For Allison, it’s the perfectly happy life she left behind to support her husband. With Rory, it’s his poor, unpleasant upbringing that he’s trying to shake off by presenting the wealth that he doesn’t have. For Samantha, it’s a suppressed fear of her family unraveling due to their choices that manifests itself in acting out and in Rory, the move has made him afraid and uncertain about himself. Even though these are very personal emotions for each member of this family, Durkin and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (who shot Sunset and Son of Saul) give The Nest an inherently unsettling feeling.
But what sells this feeling is two great performances by Law and Coon. Law is at his smarmiest and most cocky, yet still makes himself understandable as a man who believes he’s acting this way for the good of his family. Meanwhile, Coon’s slow breakdown as her family starts to crumble is her best work outside of The Leftovers. Watching these two play against each other is a joy, and it’s never quite clear where any scene featuring both of them will go.
Like Martha Marcy May Marlene, it’s not so much the story that matters, but how Durkin tells it. With a house full of dark rooms and a slow score by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Perry, Durkin is building his dread, even before we realize where he’s heading. There’s a sinking, unknowable terror throughout The Nest, but it’s never an overtly scary film. Durkin has made the cinematic equivalent of that feeling of a knot in the pit of your stomach, a certainty that something bad is on its way.
Even though Durkin sells this feeling successfully, The Nest ends up about the malleability of family, how the worst might not be unfixable, and how the next generation might be the one to solve the problems of the current one. The Nest isn’t optimistic per se, but there is a light at the end of what seems like will be a never-ending dark tunnel.
Thanks to remarkable performances and a deft handling of tone The Nest is as good – if not better – than Martha Marcy May Marlene. In the long period between films, Durkin has only grown in his time away as a tremendous filmmaker.
Editor’s note: The only way to see The Nest is in a movie theater. Our reviews are not tacit endorsements for going to the movies. We feel that criticism is more than a consumer recommendation for an entertainment product. It is a debate about art, ideally providing insight and context, and that discussion should continue. If you make the safer decision to skip theaters for now, we hope you return here when Tenet is available on streaming platforms.