The second feature from Sean Durkin (who previously directed Martha Marcy May Marlene and a Sharon Van Etten music video , The Nest depicts a combative marriage and the messy domestic life that rears its ugly head as a result. The family at its center consists of Rory (Jude Law) and Allison (Carrie Coon), each ambitious and stubbornly assertive in their own way, and their two kids, Samantha (Oona Roche), Allison’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage, and Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell), their 10-year old son. The film takes place early in the ‘80s as the family transplants from New York State to a regal mansion in Rory’s native England and tries to adjust to life across the pond.

Initially, there’s a sense of promise tied to the move. Rory, its instigator, describes “an opportunity” in London at his old investment firm, and the enormous house he procures features enough space for the stables that Allison can use for the beginnings of her own horse-riding business, a lifelong dream. Ben gets a spot at one of the best prep schools in the area, and Sam…well, at least she gets a brand new stereo.

But the house itself (a rental, by the way), populated by centuries-old paintings and secret passageways, ominously portends some great destruction. It gives off unsettling vibes: a slightly different movie would bring out the bloodthirsty ghouls. It’s not the kind of pleasant domicile that evokes images of cute baby birds. Instead, cloaked in eternal gray and dim shadow, the house is more a wasp’s nest, a hot spot for undesirable occurrences and intrusions.

This stately old manor is central to the film’s disquieting atmosphere yet clearly marginal to the family’s soon-apparent problems, such as rootlessness, distrust, deceit and an inability to meaningfully communicate with each another. As in Blumhouse Productions’ Sinister (minus the overt references to murder and the occult), the move into a new house exacerbates the family’s pre-existing issues and becomes a space haunted by their own failures.

These failures are largely financial. When Rory first proposes (or is it announces?) the move, their fourth in 10 years, Allison asks one question: “The money’s fine, right?” He insists it is, but we begin to doubt this as we see Rory in his business-networking element, talking a completely unverified big game about condos and vacations and needlessly picking up checks left and right. When we discover that Allison has a box of cash safely tucked away where Rory cannot find it, it becomes apparent that money problems are nothing new for this family, who manage to have it all and nothing at the same time.

Further unravelings commence. Allison’s horse, brought over from the States, takes sick. Ben, bullied at school, wets the bed. And Sam, basically ignored, starts smoking and inviting punky strangers over to their house. All of this stands in stark contrast to the image of family bliss from the film’s first few minutes: Ben gleefully playing soccer with Rory and a friend, Allison teaching equestrian skills to reverential strangers and Sam showing off her dexterity at gymnastics practice. This image is pure surface sheen whose more disturbing elements (such as Rory’s insistence on winning at soccer and Sam’s casual indifference towards her teammates) grow clearer in retrospect.

But even these initial moments read as melancholy and slightly menacing thanks to two major stylistic cues: composer Richard Reed Parry’s lugubrious score and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s innumerable slow zooms. Parry, a member of Arcade Fire making his solo scoring debut, crafts a minor-key jazzy theme whose chamber sound complements the increasingly tense and claustrophobic proceedings, while Erdély’s protracted adjustments of focal length exacerbate this trapped feeling, providing an impression of slow but inexorable decay.

It’s tempting to accuse Durkin of including such stylistic elements to imply a deeper meaning never realized, but, along with outstanding performances from Law and Coon and a script from Durkin that manages to lend a natural rhythm to rapid-fire theatricality (“You’re embarrassing,” Rory blunders. “And you’re exhausting,” Allison retorts), they decouple the proceedings from your average dysfunctional bourgeois family drama. In place of melodrama, we get an admixture of aestheticized restraint and satisfying explosion, a combination most delightfully represented by Allison’s guffaw at a business dinner where Rory has flailed his way through trying to impress a crew of Norwegian fish farming financiers.

Allison’s steady-handed outburst leads to a somewhat contrived third act, where The Nest tries but fails to tie together its members’ disparate strands through some spot-on dialogue about parenting and a return of the (equine) repressed. Yet, by this point, we’re so completely immersed in tension that we can forgive a little floundering, and the final scene’s level-headed return to the family’s messy yet affectionate status quo reminds us of how hilariously satisfying it’s been to see a free-enterprising businessman’s pathetic schemes so totally exposed. Their future may hang in the balance, but at least they’ve still got Diet Pepsi and a handful of leftover pastries.

Summary
By the end, we’re so completely immersed in domestic tension that we can forgive a little floundering.
71 %
Domestic Anxiety
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