The year’s first real dark drama worthy of awards attention.
Back in 2011, Sean Durkin sent shock waves through the indie film world with his mesmerizing drama Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene. The film not only made a star out of lead Elizabeth Olsen, but also signaled Durkin as a new kind of auteur; the kind which hadn’t been seen since the 1970s. What made the young filmmaker and his debut effort so lauded was the gentle, simplistic approach he took to what was such a tough subject matter, namely telling the story of life as a cult member and presented it as a riveting character study. Although his long-awaited follow-up project The Nest deals with a subject which couldn’t be more different than his debut, Durkin nonetheless wows once again with an absorbing tale of life inside a very specific world. Just as he did before, the director balances the careful movement of plot and the emergence of character in such a finely tuned way, resulting in one of the year’s best films.
Set in the 1980s, The Nest centers on British well-to-do entrepreneur Rory (Jude Law) and his almost perfect life in America with wife Allison (Carrie Coon) and their children Ben (Charlie Shotwell) and Samantha (Oona Roche). But Rory’s ambitions for success in the world of business are bigger than the life he and Allison share. Convinced he can climb to greater heights back in his own country, Rory packs up his family and moves them into a large estate in the English countryside. While things seem ideal at first, cracks begin to show as Rory and Allison struggle to hold their family together.
The revival of the 1980s throughout The Nest is one which is front and center in one way, while almost downplayed in another. Durkin’s recreation of the era in his film is present throughout and is illustrated in the most telling manner possible through his central characters. In particular Rory is the epitome of the 80s wannabe yuppie; a man so emblematic of the kind of entitlement which ran rampant during the “me” decade, who insists on the importance of people believing he and Allison lived in a penthouse Manhattan before moving to England while refusing to let the true reality of his situation play any part. Allison buys into the way of the life too. Although she’s far more grounded than her husband, her willingness to trust him and play the role of a part-time trophy wife with an equestrian passion is something she doesn’t shy away from. By contrast, the 80s aesthetic in The Nest is refreshingly low-key as Durkin and his designers have gone to great lengths to make sure that the era is well represented through wristwatches, cars and hairstyles, while making sure the characters and their torments aren’t lost within them.
At its fundamental core, The Nest is about two people running desperately from their individual dark pasts, who have found both a false shelter in the lifestyle they’ve crafted and a more genuine one within each other. A scene in which Rory visits his long-lost mother (Anne Reid) reveals a slightly troubled childhood and the working class roots he’s refused to let define him as an adult. Meanwhile, a sequence showing Allison in a nightclub dancing by herself sees her conjure up the young single mother she was before Rory came along. As the life the two find themselves living seeks to destroy them, it’s their need to cling to one another which represents the only hope the two have at not getting permanently lost. Other than their children, Rory and Allison are the only real facets of each other’s lives. The marriage they share is complicated and heavily compromised (perhaps on the same level as many unions, both then and now), but it’s what keeps them linked to the present and themselves.
Durkin couldn’t have found a better pair of leads than Law and Coon. The two aren’t afraid of embracing their characters’ respective flaws and both actors make a case for Allison and Rory, giving equal time to their vastly different wishes for their lives and that little bit of romance still there. Law has the more showy role and gives Rory all the manic energy he needs, while Coon remains contained for most of the film, slowly letting her character’s frustrations present themselves when they can no longer be stifled. It’s a stunning pair of performances which deserve all the attention available come awards time.
While The Nest isn’t necessarily a film whose technical aspects are at the forefront, they are elements which cannot help but make it as hypnotic of an experience as it is. The colors are all so wonderfully muted and the effective way in which the overall lighting changes as the couple’s situation becomes even more dire is well-noted. The cinematography by Mátyás Erdély is rich and elegant in a quiet manner, while the film’s score drifts back and forth between the sublime and the maddening. The Nest is not a film for most audiences. It’s hard to muster sympathy for people who find themselves caught in traps they in fact set for themselves. Still, there’s something so endearingly pathetic about Rory and Allison; two figures trying, at long last, to discover who they really are while they were pretending to be other people.