Sean Durkin returns nine years after Martha Marcy May Marlene with a tension-filled slow burn
“What do you do for a living?” a cab driver asks Rory O’Hara (Jude Law), besieged and bedraggled, driving him down the long, lonely road home late in Sean Durkin’s scintillating drama The Nest. “I pretend to be rich,” he says, with no small amount of self-hatred. It’s a pitiable moment for a character who heretofore has been eminently hateable, a smooth-talking grifter who’s taken the ‘greed is good’ ethos of the Reagan-era ‘80s (when this film is set) to its most toxic conclusions. And yet, as we reach the climax of The Nest’s slow build, we see he’s just another victim, someone else thrown into the meat grinder of capitalism and left to writhe in the ashes.
Durkin, whose debut Martha Marcy May Marlene was a surprise hit at Sundance in 2011, finally returns to the big screen for his sophomore feature, and what a follow up it is. Like his previous feature, The Nest hums with a looming sense of danger, and has the ineffable ability to run its finger along the cracks in the firmament of its central family. Here, we follow the O’Haras, a seemingly well-to-do clan who move from their suburban American setting to London so commodities broker Rory can seize a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity. Wife Alison (Carrie Coon) is hesitant — they’ve moved four times in the last decade — but Rory assures her everything’s going to be fine. Their prospects are so great, in fact, that Rory shells out for a spacious, ancient mansion in the farmlands of Surrey. It’s a looming, ominous place, filled with secret doors and ink-black voids, and its presence portends the O’Hara’s inevitable consumption.
It’s not long before cracks begin to show in the O’Hara family firmament: Alison bristles at the isolation of their new country home, their sensitive son (Charlie Shotwell) is bullied at the high-end private school Rory pays out for, and their teenage daughter (Oona Roche) is a buzzing core of disdain and rebellion. As for Rory, his time in America has infused him with the incessant drive to push further and further to earn, grow, achieve more; he wants the Horatio Alger story. But in doing so, he ignores the needs of his family, especially Alison, who grows increasingly weary of his bluster.
A tense family, a spooky old mansion, the looming specter of dead horses — The Nest has all the makings of a Hammer horror film. But the terrors of Durkin’s film lie in the pedestrian dynamics of a family drowning in its patriarch’s ambition, and the pressures of capitalism to drive people to such desperate extremes. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély knows how to build this tension right alongside Durkin, filling the mansion with black, shadowy voids that threaten to swallow characters whole. Scenes are elegantly structured, paced and framed, lingering in uncomfortable silences or relishing in Alison’s anguish as she’s used as arm candy for business deals, or a receptive audience for Rory’s fast-talking braggadociousness.
But even apart from its ominous atmosphere and Durkin’s economical dialogue, The Nest is an astounding showcase for its leads, particularly Coon. A veteran of the Chicago stage, Coon’s carved out quite the niche for herself on screen in powerful supporting roles, but The Nest is her time to shine. There’s something of Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl about her, a woman driven to the brink by a neglectful, boastful man and who must take drastic measures just to feel in control. Her horse Richmond, a beautiful black mare who seems particularly attuned to the poisonous nature of the whole situation, proves a tastefully effective metaphor for Alison’s confinement.
As for Law, it’s fantastic to see him break out of the pin-up hunk of his youth and into the deeper layers of his character roles; he’s perfect for Rory, ruggedly handsome and superficially charming but increasingly desperate to hold on to what he’s been told to value his whole life. Together, their marriage (and the ensuing tensions) resonate with a kind of heightened truth, giving Law and Coon plenty of chances to go big without ever seeming false. It’s consistently involving, atmospheric, and deeply concerned with the little tragedies that can befall a family when they fall victim to a man’s greed. It might just be one of Sundance 2020’s underappreciated treasures.
This review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It currently does not have US distribution.
Clint Worthington is a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool. He also co-hosts and produces the podcasts More of a Comment, Really… and Hall of Faces for The Spool, as well as Travolta/Cage with Nathan Rabin. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and too many Criterions.