It’s been an agonizing nine-year wait for writer-director Sean Durkin to follow up his outstanding 2011 debut Martha Marcy May Marlene, but he’s finally gotten the finger out and delivered a second feature. And boy, has he delivered! Returning to the UK, where he was raised as a child and where he directed the 2013 Channel 4 mini-series Southcliffe, Durkin has given us a doom-laden rejoinder to the current rose-tinted nostalgia for that most awful of decades, the 1980s. The Nest is a moody family drama that plays like The Omen with Thatcher swapped in for Satan.
Might Durkin’s new film be autobiographical? When he was 12, his parents uprooted him from scenic Surrey to Manhattan. For the family at the center of The Nest, the transplant occurs in reverse, with English Wall Street broker Rory (Jude Law) convincing his dubious American wife Allison (Carrie Coon) to up sticks and flee Manhattan for Surrey in the mid ‘80s. Tempted by Thatcher’s policy of deregulation, Rory returns to work for the London firm he started his career with. He pays a year’s rent in advance on a centuries old estate and begins building stables so Allison can pursue her ambitions of becoming a horse trainer. His young son, Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell), is enrolled at the best school in the area, though his stepdaughter, Sam (Oona Roche), is tellingly sent to the local comprehensive.
How can he possibly afford all this? Well, it turns out he can’t. After struggling to achieve the American dream, Rory soon finds out that Thatcher’s promise of gold in the streets of London is just as much of a fairy tale. Having bet big on a brokerage deal that his beleaguered employer (Michael Culkin) ultimately dismisses as overly naive, Rory is left in debt to the tune of tens of thousands and forced to beg his wife for pocket money from the shoebox she keeps hidden from his eyes. Needless to say, this puts a strain on their marriage.
Movies about failing relationships are two a penny, but what makes Durkin’s film stand out is its formal approach. Durkin tells this story like a horror movie. As far as the troubled marriage sub-genre goes, its closest companion is Eyes Wide Shut. The Nest has a pervading atmosphere you can almost choke on, a fog of bad decisions wafting off the screen like the smoke from a fag perched atop a fruit machine in an ‘80s London boozer.
Durkin, along with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and editor Matthew Hannam, redeploy a series of outdated filmmaking tools. The 35mm photography helps capture the gritty, smoke-stained look of ‘80s Britain, while Kubrick-esque slow zooms create an off-kilter mood that adds a curious discomfort to otherwise ambivalent scenes. The dissolve, once the de facto method of getting from one scene to the next, is so extinct in modern cinema that when Durkin and Hannam apply it here it becomes oddly unsettling.
At times, The Nest almost enters haunted house territory. There’s a moment involving the ambiguous unlocking of a door that recalls a similar incident in Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, while the suspicious death of Allison’s prize horse, which leads to an eerie denouement, is the stuff of folk-horror. Like the female protagonists of so many haunted house thrillers, Allison is left alone in sprawling, creepy surrounds while hubby spends his days and a few too many nights in the city. Having uprooted Allison from Manhattan, Rory ironically spends his time among the skyscrapers of London’s financial district, leaving his New Yorker spouse in the middle of nowhere, engulfed in fields and fog.
Comparison will likely be made to Kubrick’s The Shining, but Durkin’s film offers a glimpse of how that Stephen King adaptation might have played out with a more nuanced actor in the Jack Torrance role. Law is at his career best here playing an initially charming bastard who grows into a despicable shitheel as he chases a dream that’s always out of reach, Del Boy without the pratfalls. As his put-upon, practical other half, Coon is phenomenal, cashing in the chips she’s gathered in her relatively short but impressive career - this is the movie where she morphs from character actor to movie star. As their kids, who turn out to be the ones in the family with the most sense, Shotwell and Roche are equally consummate.
Far from The Shining, the film The Nest is most reminiscent of is Sidney Gilliat’s excellent yet underseen 1972 Hitchcockian thriller Endless Night, in which an American woman similarly suffers at the hands of an English husband desperate to escape his working class roots by constructing a rural home he can’t really pay for.
The term ‘elevated horror’ is often bandied about by snobs who feel the need to justify their enjoyment of a horror movie, but the truth is horror is the most elevated, most cinematic genre of them all. Durkin gets this. He’s taken a rather simple family drama and used the tools of horror storytelling to elevate it to something greater, an unsettling critique of capitalism that burrows its way into your consciousness like an unpaid bill.
The Nest - 4 ½ stars out of 5
Directed by: Sean Durkin; Starring: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Charlie Shotwell, Oona Roche, Adeel Akhtar
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com