'The Nest' is a marriage story from the Greed Is Good era, fiercely acted
A tightly clenched marriage story, writer-director Sean Durkin's "The Nest" takes place at the height of the mid-1980s, a year or two before Gordon Gekko and Oliver Stone made unscrupulous capitalism so damnably aspirational in "Wall Street."
Durkin's second feature is not primarily concerned with deregulated excess or financial matters, however. "The Nest" is more about the dangerous facades and thin ice of so many family relationships. The troubled air of Durkin's previous feature, the eerily effective cult drama "Martha Marcy May Marlene," has something in common with the air in this one.
When we first see Rory, played by Jude Law, he's making a transatlantic phone call that will change his life. The steely look on his face just before dialing suggests a natural-born deception artist about to go into his dance.
Rory's a commodities broker, a Londoner who married an American, horse trainer Allison, played by Carrie Coon. Life in the U.S. hasn't suited Rory. Without his wife's knowledge, he's arranging a move for the family back to London, where things are churning and there's fishy money to be made by fishermen like this one.
The kids are step-siblings: Allison's blase teenaged daughter from a previous marriage (played by Oona Roche) and the shy 10-year-old son born to Allison and Rory (Charlie Shotwell). The move to Surrey is the fourth in a decade for this blended family. The new house, full of secret doors and underfurnished, cavernous rooms, suggests a supernatural thriller in the making.
But "The Nest" isn't that. Instead, it's a four-way domestic crisis, set into methodical, inevitable motion. Rory butts heads with his aging mentor and boss (Michael Culkin), who admires Rory's drive but questions his ethics and his grasp of details. Allison's prized horse, shipped over from America, seems out of sorts, though no more than Allison herself, who has begun to see right through her husband to a place she'd rather be. In one school, daughter Samantha runs with a fast crowd, drugwise, while her stepbrother Benjamin, plopped into the fancy, forbidding public (i.e., private) school Rory wishes he'd had, is subjected to bullying and various strains of isolation.
Durkin's especially astute in detailing how children, at any age, absorb whatever parental tension hangs in the air. In "The Nest" it's a lot, and the tension is made manifest by the inspired Hungarian cinematographer Matyas Erdely ("Son of Saul," "Sunset"). All four key actors are lovely, none of them playing to the camera — Durkin likes nice, long, slow-zoom set-ups, roomy and generous — and all of them affecting. Coon has the built-in advantage of playing the character undergoing the most evident and playable changes. But she's extraordinary in her contained emotion.
That emotion comes out, eventually, for everyone. If "The Nest" has a central weakness, it's not in Law, but it is in Rory. He's a weasel and a bounder from scene one; a more sympathetic character isn't what's missing, but a less predictable emblem of '80s excess and blinkered avarice might've turned a good drama into an excellent one. This one's still worthwhile. Bonus: There's a fine musical score by Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry, sparely orchestrated but full of dramatic suggestion, and by the end it becomes an organic part of a meticulous atmospheric achievement.
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout, some sexuality, nudity and teen partying)
Running time: 1:47
Premieres: Friday in select theaters. Streaming online via IFC Films starting Nov. 17