4 out of 5 stars

The opening shot of The Nest aims to throw you off balance, and it does. On the surface, writer-director Sean Durkin seems to be presenting us with a domestic idyll—two cars (one a flash Mercedes) nuzzle together on the drive outside a house in a nice neighbourhood. Nestled amongst trees and shrubs somewhere in Upstate New York, it’s a picture of cosy, early-morning suburban contentment. But all is not quite right… as Richard Reed Parry’s score, complete with hypnotic drone and piano stabs, is already inducing anxiety, while the title and its logo would look perfectly at home in a horror film. (In fact, two recent chillers have shared The Nest as a title and that’s before you even get to Terence H. Winkless’s 1987 effort about mutant cockroaches.)

There are no murderous insects here, but the feeling of unease persists and grows. It’s the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan is in his second term in the White House and British ex-pat financial trader Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) is seemingly living the good life with a beautiful American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and two smart and funny kids, Sam (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell). But when Rory’s alone, he’s on edge and broods in his study. A phone call to his old boss, Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin), back in London, does nothing to assuage our fear that all is not well. And when Rory tells a stunned Allison he needs to move the family to the UK as soon as possible because “things have dried up for me here”, alarm bells ring. The bleak foreshadowing is hardly subtle—Allison tells her mother “something doesn’t feel right” about the move, and her beloved black horse Richmond has to be practically dragged into his box for transportation. We’re barely 10-minutes in and the sense of dread is palpable.

Soon, the family’s winging its way from the States across the pond to leafy Surrey as Rory returns to work at Davis’s company where, a decade earlier, he had been “a dangerously ambitious young man who was the highest earner in the pit.” Financial deregulation and the ‘Big Bang’ are just around the corner for the City of London, and savvy O’Hara, who can see the potential rewards a mile off, is hellbent on cashing in. In fact, it becomes increasingly clear it’s this that has sent him scurrying back across the Atlantic; he didn’t feel important enough and wasn’t nearly rich enough in the States, his inability to fully realise the American Dream impacting a fragile ego. He sees himself as a Sherman McCoy-style ‘Master of the Universe’, not a moderately successful suburban dad who does the school run and has kickabouts with his son in the back garden. “Here, I feel worthwhile, I feel powerful, I feel fucking invincible,” Rory tells his wife back in England, as if disembarking a plane at Heathrow imbues him with superhuman abilities.

The Nest of the title is the house the O’Hara’s leave behind but can be ironically, bitterly applied to their new home, too. The grand country pile is old, vast, and would be spectacularly inappropriate for a family of ten, let alone one with only four members (“These floorboards were laid in the 1700s… Led Zeppelin stayed here!”) It’s the sort of building you’d expect to see used as a stand-in for Hampton Court in some BBC historical drama about Henry VIII; an absurd status symbol that ultimately becomes an emblem of something altogether darker—the malaise that sits at the heart of Rory and Allison’s marriage and the impact that has on their children, too.

Despite the fantasies he pedals to Allison and his boss’s rich pals (“we’ll always keep our penthouse in New York”), Rory—a sort of yuppie Billy Liar—can’t afford such extravagance and has overstretched himself financially. He’s dislocated from the reality of his situation and notions of dislocation and alienation are the main themes here. The family’s been ripped from where three of its members were happiest and that has profound consequences for each individual, including the two kids who struggle to adapt in different ways to their new life and surroundings. Young Ben is bullied, and teenage stepsister Sam goes off the rails. The horror story hinted at in the film’s opening moments becomes reality, as haunted house tropes (“this house scares me”) and further portents of doom (Richmond’s behaviour grows ever more erratic) lead the O’Hara family down paths both bleak and upsetting.

Rory’s big house in the country is a monument to his vanity; an impressive façade with little substance inside (quite literally, as it happens, because the O’Hara’s can’t afford to properly furnish the place). There’s a simple but effective scene in which Allison attempts to arrange sofas and chairs in one of the mansion’s colossal wood-panelled rooms in a bid to make it more homely, but she may as well be trying to pretty up the Nostromo with a chaise lounge and a feature wall for all the good it does. Durkin is a detail-oriented director, who sets up lots of smart little call-backs which reward a second watch. One of the most striking here invites the viewer to compare and contrast Ben’s bedroom back in the US (all toy dinosaurs and BMX wallpaper, it exudes warmth and security) and the austere, unfriendly space he has to sleep in at the mansion. No wonder the poor kid wets the bed and clings on to a Star Wars figure for dear life as a reminder of home.

We’ve seen plenty of films about unravelling marriages—most recently in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019)—but this is a different beast. Despite their simmering enmity, Rory and Allison seem doomed to stay together and neither as much as mentions divorce. The film is built around their fractious relationship and the two leads rise to it. Rory’s the sort of cocky chancer Law could essay in his sleep but, even so, he’s impressive. It’s a fairly broad role, and there are times when Rory—a working-class ‘boy made good’ who has rejected his roots—threatens to slide into a Guy Ritchie caricature (“that fucking cunt sold me a sick horse!”), but Law reins it in just enough to make him believable and occasionally even sympathetic, especially when Rory’s previously endless reservoirs of charm appear to dry up.

The MVP here, though, is Coon, whose Allison starts off as a rather two-dimensional ice queen before grief, fury, and exasperation at Rory’s recklessness leads her to question everything about her life. Coon’s scenes with Law are electrifyingly good (especially ones that take place in two expensive restaurants), their characters’ brutal and hilarious confrontations suffused with a powerful combination of attraction and disgust. The only thing drearier than awards season is whining about the talent ‘snubbed’ during awards season, but it seems bizarre that Coon didn’t bag an Academy Award nomination.

One could argue The Nest is a bit overstuffed. It’s a character study of a ravenously ambitious but unhappy man and a dissection of a crumbling marriage and dysfunctional family. It also examines the changing nature of western capitalism, embodied during the ’80s by Reaganomics and Thatcherism, adding class, culture, and homesickness to an already explosive mix. But Durkin—who was born in Canada but raised in London, then New York—juggles his themes, characters, and big ideas impressively. It might not be quite as elegantly told as the director’s debut, the sublime Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), but comes awfully close. 

The Nest lightly evokes its period setting with a restrained colour palette (browns and beiges) and an eye for the fashions of the time (like the Bass Weejuns loafers Law recently namechecked in a newspaper interview). Meanwhile, Durkin’s impressive grasp of the ’80s financial arcana means his screenplay is utterly convincing. But it’s the music that does most of the heavy lifting—The Cure, Bronski Beat, Psychedelic Furs, Heart, etc. And the moment when Sam quickly rises from her chair so she can record the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now” off the radio is so quintessentially ’80s you’re half-surprised Ferris Bueller doesn’t cameo.

UK CANADA | 2020 | 107 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Sean Durkin.
starring: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Oona Roche, Charlie Shotwell, Tanya Allen & Adeel Akhtar.