Director: Sean Durkin
Stars: Carrie Coon, Jude Law, Michael Culkin
Carrie Coon had appeared on my radar a couple of times before The Leftovers, but it was her turn as Nora Durst in HBO’s extraordinary three-season drama that forever earned her a position, in my mind, as one of The Greats. Everything that made Nora the best character on The Leftovers is rearranged, reconstituted and harnessed by Coon for her performance here as Allison O’Hara; one half of the fraught marriage examined with complexity by Sean Durkin throughout his grimly compelling second feature.
It’s been ten years since Martha Marcy May Marlene earned its place as one of 2011’s more disquieting indies. In that time Durkin has directed for British television and – as I would check his imdb out of impatience – worked to bring a biopic of Janice Joplin to fruition that, for whatever reasons, hasn’t made it to us yet.
Durkin’s work on Southcliffe for Channel Four and the accompanying move (back) from the US to the UK stirred up the origins of The Nest; a film that offers no easy entry points but becomes, through steely osmosis, one of the most uneasy and transfixing experiences I can remember.
It’s 1986. Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) and his wife Allison (the aforementioned Coon) are heads of a small, upper-middle class family living in upstate New York. He’s a market trader, she trains horses, Taking her mother’s advice and following her husband, Allison begrudgingly ups sticks for a wintry country estate in Surrey, England, as Rory guides the family on a transatlantic move in pursuit of further riches. Their children – sensitive Ben (Charlie Shotwell) and precocious Sam (Oona Roche) – are relocated with them. Allison’s resentment at the move slowly starts to thaw as Rory compensates her with gifts and attractive promises (newly built stables right on their farmland property), but their too-spacious new home – an old mansion that dwarfs and shrouds the foursome – quickly comes to feel like a dark metaphor for the labyrinth of lies and concessions that are rotting the marriage from within.
In truth, Rory’s a charlatan and a chancer; born poor and faking rich, he’s built a house of cards on shaky foundations and money is running out. So The Nest pries into the excesses of the ’80s and the endlessly shifting goals of late-period capitalism by reflecting its psychological effects on a splintering family unit.
With Martha Marcy May Marlene Durkin carefully unpeeled an onion of repressed trauma surrounding a survivor of cult indoctrination. The same might be said of The Nest, in which Durkin’s O’Hara clan find themselves unlearning the false-promises of the American Dream; something that the UK at the time (as now) readily bought into. There’s a sense of collective deprogramming happening here, but the process is perhaps even more distressing and painful than Elizabeth Olsen’s in MMMM.
Durkin’s patient, often coolly detached approach to framing his subjects enhances this. He favours long takes and allows his actors space, sometimes even seeming as though he is spying on them. Thus a very tranquil, sustained shot will trap a character in their sadness or panic. Durkin uses his stunning country estate location to further a sense of oppressive paranoia. The Nest comes to feel like a haunted house movie, or one forever escalating toward a home invasion horror. Rarely have I encountered a genre film that conjured such a certainty of disaster waiting in the wings, let alone a relatively muted family drama. The Nest is terrifying and – cinematically-speaking – feels spiritually connected less to the ’80s, and more to the dark psychological dramas proffered up by Joseph Losey and Roman Polanski in the ’60s.
Yet Durkin does masterfully capture the time period he’s chosen, without pushing hard into the tropes of nostalgia that usually typify such excursions. Just as Joanna Hogg did so expertly with The Souvenir, Durkin date-stamps his story with drab fashions, Thatcherite urban dreariness and evocative needle drops. Allison dancing with abandon to Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” in a London dive feels like a scene that will permanently connect sound and vision from now on. I doubt I’ll think of one without thinking of the other.
One might argue that a subplot involving the fate of Richmond – Allison’s trophy horse – is a little on-the-nose as a metaphor for the crumbling marriage that Durkin has chosen to investigate. Heavy-handed it may be, but it works gangbusters, and the last scene of this aspect of the movie proves fundamental in making the final scene of the entire movie work. The second half of The Nest charts a long day’s journey into night (and dawn agai)n for all four family members, culminating with a breakfast scene that is played with expert minimalist precision. It feels like a scene in which Durkin and his actors have judiciously subtracted and subtracted until left with the core elements of what it needs to be. It’s a great ending.
None of this is particularly easy to get into. The Nest offers no bite-sized plot hook. It doesn’t placate anyone looking for a snappy two-sentence synopsis. It is an acting and directing masterclass, however. It is grown-up filmmaking for an adult audience (something that can feel like a dying art when mainstream culture is dominated by children’s stories for all ages). For all it’s oppressive mood and dour portent, it is wickedly funny, especially whenever Rory and Allison unleash their reserves of spite.
I hope it isn’t another decade until Sean Durkin offers up another feature film. But even if it is, the wait will be worth it if he keeps presenting us material this good. One of the year’s best films.