by Philip Price
Director: Sean Durkin
Starring: Jude Law & Carrie Coon
Runtime: 1 hour & 47 minutes
As a huge fan of writer/director Sean Durkin's 2011 breakout feature, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” I was very much looking forward to his follow-up which unfortunately has taken nine years to craft and unfortunately feels like it should have taken less than half that time. It's not difficult to see where folks who enjoy the art form that is the motion picture will derive pleasure and satisfaction from Durkin's “The Nest” for, despite watching hundreds of films a year, I still consider myself very much a novice when it comes to movies of bygone eras-especially those prior to the turn of the millennium. This could certainly have influenced my perception of “The Nest” as not only is the film set during, but very much feels like a film born of the late seventies to early eighties. That said, it's not difficult to see what Durkin is going for here with this assessment of preserving one's own identity within a marriage while simultaneously preserving the illusion of a unified union to the world at large as everyday actions threaten to tear it apart, but even that summarization makes the proceedings sound more exciting than they actually are and furthermore, lends me no idea as to how well Durkin is achieving his goal. To this untrained eye at least, the writer/director takes far longer to build the basis on which we will see the cracks that come to divide this family unit than he does on actually exploring those crevices. “The Nest” is the type of movie most modern moviegoers wouldn't consider a story-or more appropriately, a study-that necessarily needs or deserves to be told on the big screen. Of course, this is also the type of movie that the parents of modern moviegoers watched in droves in the ‘70s as this feels akin to the kind of work I expect Mike Nichols and the like were doing at the time. These smaller, character-driven pieces analyzing the fractured American dream and how the layers of such a facade easily fall apart when that's all it was to begin with: a deceitful outward appearance meant to conceal a less pleasant reality. Though Durkin's seeming objective of depicting an unpleasant reality is an unequivocal success, whether the film as whole is equally successful is more up for debate as what “The Nest” achieves is far easier to appreciate than it is to experience.
In “The Nest,” we are introduced to what seem to be a well-rounded family in mother Allison (Carrie Coon), her husband Rory (Jude Law) and Allison's teenage daughter, Samantha (Oona Roche), along with Allison and Rory's younger son, Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell). Rory works in the world of finance while Allison trains horses and gives riding lessons near their New York home. From the outside, this well-groomed clan would seem to have all their ducks in a row, but Rory is floundering in this environment leading him to propose a move to London for a better job opportunity and chance for the family to truly prosper. It's clear Allison isn't pleased with the idea as this would be the family's "fourth move in 10 years," but Rory (unfairly or not) positions the U.S.-based excursion as an allowance for Allison to be close to her family (Wendy Crewson shows up as Allison's mother in a single, brief scene), but one that has run its course and in order to change his fortunes Rory needs to change his scenery. It is immediately after they arrive in London that Rory seems to begin spending more than he is bringing home; living above the family's means for no other reason than he genuinely feels he deserves the life he is leading others to believe he's already attained. Rory leases an abandoned country manor in Suree, just outside of London while also talking of purchasing a flat in the city, buying Allison a horse and beginning construction on stables on their property while enlisting Benjamin in the best school available. Rory initially appears to have crafted a sturdy relationship with Samantha if not necessarily a close one, but the inclusion of small details such as Rory intentionally leaving her out of the family picture in front of their new house and relegating her to the shitty school as opposed to Benjamin's privately-funded education make way for the reasons Samantha begins to feel isolated-if not only by her "family" but simply by being secluded to this country house that's so much more than a family of four could ever need. The Rory/Samantha dynamic doesn't go anywhere profound, but more it simply serves the purpose of underlining and illustrating the pattern of Rory's relationships with people. Of course, the real core of “The Nest” is that of Allison and Rory's rapidly devolving marriage as-to put it simply-Allison is fed up with my man's bullshit. Unfortunately, my man's bullshit extends to this new job (which, Allison comes to realize, Rory reached out to his former employer about and not vice versa as he'd told her), but while Rory is more or less banking on the idea that his boss (Michael Culkin) will jump at the opportunity to sell his company to a Chicago-based investor and retire with plenty of money before the end of the year when new regulation laws go into effect, he couldn't be less cautious about counting his chickens before they hatch. This goes for every aspect of his Rory's life as Durkin's film is ultimately a portrait of sad, rich, white people and why they have to perpetuate these hardships out of nothing but circumstances of their own making in order to feel anything real.
As one might be able to derive, Law has a lot he can play with and chew on here and the actor continues to perfect this ability to manipulate his good looks and natural charm into an embodiment of vapidness for certain characters (see “Vox Lux”). In the case of Rory, this conveyance essentially confirms that the only thing this man is good at isn't good for anyone else around him; he's an image-conscious and money-hungry patriarch that will never be fulfilled no matter how high up the ladder he climbs..."more is always the answer," as they say. It is in Law's performance that we garner Durkin's intent of dismantling the image and difference in achieving a sense of belonging where you think you want to belong despite having to change who you are in order to achieve that sense. It's almost pathetic how desperate Rory becomes in attempting to become someone he's not and it's the ripple effect of this type of personality and how it begins to impact the people around him where Durkin finds his most interesting layers; the ones that conflict in maintaining how Rory wants to be perceived versus Allison's mentality of genuine happiness over outside perception. This level of unrest only begins to come to the forefront at the forty-five minute mark leaving just under an hour for Durkin to discuss and exemplify his main ideas. While it may be a little too deliberate for its own good the pacing and uneventful nature of the film does also seem to be completely in line with the filmmaker's intent. There is a moment late in the film when Rory's planned "win" at work is crumbling around him and Culkin's character says to him that he, "doesn't pay attention to the detail," and that the detail is, "boring, ugly and (his) favorite part of the business." This makes sense at least when taken on the fact Durkin also wrote this dialogue and likely comes from his own sense of cognitive consonance as his favorite parts of crafting a film seem to be found in what others might largely perceive as the boring and ugly aspects of life; especially given the movies typically encapsulate only the most exciting of life's moments. Again, it's easy to respect this approach as many different strands within “The Nest” are fascinating and compelling enough in their own, small yet resonating ways, but when said strands need to come together to form a whole is where the intrigue falls apart. The most striking of these strands though, is Coon's performance as Allison. While it becomes increasingly obvious as the film plays that this is not so much Allison's story it does become apparent this is totally Coon's movie. There is a scene an hour and 20 or so minutes into the film where she becomes increasingly nauseated by the sound of her husband's voice in an unbroken shot that condenses everything this movie is attempting to capture and pull from the depths of its soul into a single look. It's a glimmer of magic in an otherwise mundane world and for a brief moment genuinely makes the viewer want to run toward these characters who only want to run away from themselves.