Friday, May 14, 2021

The Nest

Director: Sean Durkin
Starring: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Charlie Shotwell, Oona Roche, Adeel Akhtar, Anne Reid, Michael Culkin
Running Time: 107 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The final words of dialogue spoken in Sean Durkin's psychological drama The Nest comes when a character is told under no uncertain terms to just "stop it." Give up. It's over. You're not fooling anyone. It may not be the denouement viewers were looking for or the explosive culmination of this slow burn of a plot, but it's somehow perfect nonetheless. Not entirely but perhaps partially miscategorized as a thriller, the film's a gripping exercise in subverting expectations, as notable for where Durkin chooses not to go with the material than where he does. For a while, we're just not sure where things are headed since the mood and tone lulls us into thinking supernatural elements could be at play or it's traveling down a road resembling that taken by Jack Torrance and family in The Shining.  But as the story progresses, I found myself increasingly relieved that it doesn't, as the performances, setting and characters are too complex for the script to compromise or merely settle into straightforward horror. 

Its creepiest elements hover ominously in the background, which is exactly where they belong. And none of the them have to do with the story's narrative, which fits squarely into the fractured suburban nightmare subgenre occupied by the likes of The Ice Storm, The Swimmer, Ordinary People or American Beauty. Accompanying it is a sinister mood that suggests something bad will inevitably happen, if said event isn't already well underway. We're not completely sure how or what, and that we seem no closer to that answer by the time it concludes will undoubtedly infuriate audiences expecting a spectacularly violent outbreak of some sort.

The true horror centers around a woman's realization her husband's in a permanent state of self-denial, pushing forward with an act even he's having trouble justifying anymore. And now after his most selfish, poorly motivated decision yet, he's taking the entire family down with him. So entrenched in its materialistic "me first" 1980's milieu, you'd almost be convinced these events couldn't take place in any other decade but that. Of course, it could, but things just couldn't be the same given how intrinsically its themes are tied to this particular period. This is Durkin's first film since his heavily praised debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene introduced the world to Elizabeth Olsen, and proves worth the nine year wait, complete with a shelf life and accompanying discussion capable of lasting far longer.

It's the mid 80's and English-born commodities trader Rory O' Hara (Jude Law) lives with his American wife Allison (Carrie Coon), biological son Ben (Charlie Shotwell) and stepdaughter Samantha (Oona Roche) in an upper middle-class New York suburb. Allison teaches horseback riding while Rory's contemplating an offer from his former employer, Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin), to rejoin him in England to explore new financial ventures. Having already moved and uprooted the kids four times in the past decade, Allison very reluctantly gives in as the family moves into a dark, cavernous mansion in Surrey. With Rory gifting her a new horse and planning the construction of stables on their giant property, the kids are enroll in expensive private schools while he wines and dines associates at posh restaurants with Allison on his arm. 

Despite Rory flaunting the family's apparent wealth, nothing is what it seems, with him spending far more cash than he's taking in and they're soon miserable in a creepy, dimly lit house that's far from a home. Isolated and depressed, they attempt to make the best of it until it's clear Rory doesn't believe there's a problem at all, doubling down on his failed business proposals and blowing money by the truckload. Reckoning with the reality that the man she married is a greedy social climber putting on an elaborate show, Allison will need to decide how much more she can take before his uncontrollable ego decimates them all. 

The more we learn about Rory, the less there is to like, or even tolerate. Whether it's some combination of the move, location, mansion, circumstances or him just generally doing a worse job than usual at playing the role of a loving husband and father, the cold truth is now being fully revealed to Allison. In many of their heated verbal exchanges, she's able to curb his rampage with just a few carefully cutting words. It's a far cry from the film's opening scenes where Rory's making breakfast for the kids, driving them to school and asking about their day. His explanation for their relocation to England ends up being the first big lie we witness and it only worsens from there, as he soon gives up all pretensions of being a responsible husband or parent. The curtain comes down, revealing an image-obsessed narcissist, or as Allison would call it, "a poor kid pretending to be a rich." . 

Questions regarding identity and the stress of living a lie can't help but call attention to Jude Law's most famous role in The Talented Mr. Ripley, leaving little doubt that it had to be a major catalyst behind his casting. And this may be his best work since, with the actor making Rory charming and friendly enough to initially convey that friends and acquaintances would take him at face value. It's when this thin, superficial facade starts to crack that things really get interesting, like when he literally pushes his wife's rebellious daughter Sam out of the perfect portrait he envisions with Allison and "real" son Ben. It's clear Sam has a far different relationship with Rory, yet not necessarily an adversarial one, which makes his apathy toward her all the more infuriating. 

Roche's supporting turn as Sam provides a different take on your typical angsty teen because it's sprinkled with these self-aware moments of remorse and flickers of sympathy for what her parents are going through. Even when falling into drugs and partying, she displays an unexpected protectiveness toward her little brother, whom Charlie Shotwell portrays as completely terrified and withdrawn, clinging to his mother for dear life. It's tough to blame him, especially when, in a nice piece of foreshadowing, even the horse recognizes that this move was a bad idea. 

If there were any lingering doubts of Durkin's intentions, his casting of scene-stealing genre vet Michael Culkin as Rory's boss further emphasizes the film's sinister undercurrents. Rory's hotshot, hyper-aggressive American deal making heavily clashes with Arthur's more conservative approach, leading to a great Culkin speech that completely chops his former underling down to size. Jolted in such a satisfyingly clever way, Rory's entire game drops multiple notches for the film's remainder, making him easy pickings for Allison.   

As his inferiority complex takes center stage, you'd easily be fooled into thinking this is Rory's story when it's really about Allison unchaining herself and the kids from his hubris. Having transitioned from stage to screen in a big way within the past decade, Emmy-nominated Carrie Coon has what's arguably her biggest showcase yet with a lead role unlike anything she's previously tackled. Playing a woman so unlike her husband you wonder how they ever wed, she values work and pragmatism far more than cultivating any kind of image. Having hustled for everything her whole life, many of the best scenes revolve around her character's outward disgust at being paraded around by Rory as a trophy wife, calling out his excessive spending, neglectful selfishness, and in a great final stand, intentionally humiliating him in front of his clients. 

Allison's entire presentation and demeanor drips in the time period, with Coon incorporating it into every subtle signal and gesture. Right down to her clothes and sensibilities, she's a woman trapped in evening gowns and fur coats, quietly seething with anger that her entire identity is being so blatantly disregarded. But Coon never leaves much doubt as to who's really pulling the strings, with Allison letting Rory get all this out of his system before going in for the knockout blow. After impressing with seriously memorable TV turns in Fargo, The Leftovers and The Sinner, Coon manages to level up here without dulling any of the sharper edges that's defined so much of her character work.

Whatever hints were teased from its poster and promotional materials that Durkin would go all in on the 80's aesthetic are followed through ten-fold, from the washed-out, vintage TV sheen of Mátyás Erdély's cinematography, to the music, title treatment, production design, pacing and performances. Nothing here feels like a mere approximation of the era, making it impossible to doubt these characters are living in that decade while still not calling unnecessary attention to it. And all of this converges in a slow, steady stream of escalating discomfort, creating the eerie mood of a story heavily flirting with horror without ever fully crossing the threshold into it.

You know it's gotten bad for Rory when even his estranged mother thinks her son's a total fraud and he  makes a pathetically unconvincing case to a cab driver why he should win "Dad of the Year" for fulfilling the bare minimum of parental responsibility. He even gets a long, defeated Lancaster-like trek back to the mansion, unaware what he'll find beyond the crumbled remnants of the pain he's caused. It doesn't feel like a victory for Allison even when it should, as her one moment of celebratory freedom looks strangely lonely despite appearing to have broken free, at least in a metaphorical sense.  

The ending is the closest the script comes to faintly acknowledging something more supernaturally sinister is afoot, leaving that door slightly open to the possibility, though not by much. Calling the film unresolved or contending it doesn't lead anywhere ignores that maybe it goes exactly where it needs and no further, reveling in the curiosity that comes from speculating what happens to this family after the final credits roll. Rory's ultimate punishment is the realization that everyone's suffered enough for him to be exposed for the world to see, no longer in possession of the upper hand he only imagined holding all along.  

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