In Sean Durkin’s The Nest, a domestic drama modulated as a horror film, which eschews the supernatural for material unease, Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) uproots his wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and two children (Charlie Shotwell and Oona Roche) from their American upper-middle class affluence, beckoning them to his homeland. Rory, a self-made arriviste and paragon of English mobility, has already attended to their newly rented 15th Century Surrey mansion, residing in the Home County most easily characterized by its lack of personality and commuter proximity to London. His trailing family are greeted by a bravura display of shallow opulence, a series of ornamental gestures that form a hodgepodge of suspect historical allusions. And there’s the house. Rory, in the pose of consummate patriarch, offers his clan a desultory tour across oak panelled floors, editorializing the furniture in ways that indicate a more consuming façade. An ‘Elizabethan-style’ table from about one hundred years ago yields the mistaken, excited commentary that “they just don’t make things like this anymore!” Rory’s financial frontier is found in the recesses of the gothic interior, while promise and opportunity exist untapped in the empty corridors and surplus rooms.
But what exactly does he seek? As a commodities trader wanting to extract the maximum from mid-1980s’ Big Bang deregulation (the period indicated by shop-worn soundtrack cues), Rory seeks the faint sketch of an outline, an imagined grand total, an impossible arbitrary measure of success. On a practical level, his pursuit of speculative wealth and avarice as itself an endgame compromises Allison’s financial independence and his children’s upbringing. Durkin illustrates these after-effects through his impressive handle on detail: the secret nook wherein Allison keeps her moneybox (containing cash, importantly); the high grey shorts of the polite English schoolboy, a product of the education Rory is desperate to afford his son; and the dour state secondary school from which Allison’s daughter, the offspring of a previous marriage, fails to be picked up. Rory’s relative neglect of his non-biological daughter functions as an unsettling through-line, dormant for long periods, impudently throbbing beneath the surface.
Shot in grainy 35mm, with insinuating compositions from Mátyás Erdély, the film relies on tropes that provoke visual uncertainty and foreboding, and which mainly avoid grisly, stimulating climaxes. Graphic images, such as those of a deceased horse, are depicted as matter of fact. Tireless dread within the household is rather generated from zoom-shots, suggesting a sinister otherworldly presence, and from establishing images that linger slightly too long, an arpeggio locked in a descent. Assisted by composer Richard Reed Parry’s sporadic drones, these techniques indicate entrenched pain more than anticipatory caution. Both Law, as an inverted Dickie Greenleaf, and Coons, modifying her stage-work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, secrete from their loggerhead performances a piercing, ammoniac smell, symptomatic of the general interplay of insecurity and deception. Their paired excellence serves the overall mood and tone, which needles the vapidity of its central characters, who are, in the immortal, inscribed words of one disappointed guest, “yuppy cunts.”