Jude Law and Carrie Coon star in this exceptional 80s-set psychological thriller about domestic disharmony, festering secrets and the toxic idea that money can buy happiness.
Before watching The Nest, you mightn't have imagined Jude Law playing Mad Men's Don Draper. He didn't, of course. But this new 80s-set psychological thriller about a corroding marriage brings that idea to mind, because it too follows a man who spends his days selling a dream, thinks he can talk and charm his way into anything, and may have unleashed his biggest spin upon himself. More often than not, Law's character here has used his charisma to get whatever he wants, and to evade whichever sticky personal and professional situations he's plunged himself into. Indeed, stock trader Rory O'Hara slides easily into Law's list of suave on-screen roles, alongside the likes of The Talented Mr Ripley and Alfie. But there's also a tinge of desperation to his arrogance, as the actor showcased well in miniseries The Third Day. A Brit who relocated to New York and married horse trainer Allison (Carrie Coon, Widows), Rory looks the picture of Reagan-era affluence but, when he suddenly wants to return to London to chase new work opportunities, the cracks in his facade start widening.
When Rory proposes the move to Allison, she's reluctant. From the instant she first spies the centuries-old Surrey mansion he's rented for them, her teenage daughter Sam (Oona Roche, Morning Wars) and their son Ben (Charlie Shotwell, The Nightingale), she's mistrustful as well. Rory crows about how Led Zeppelin once recorded an album there as he tours her through the cavernous property, but the glassiness in Allison's eyes shows that she can't unthinkably subscribe to his glossy view of their relocated existence. That remains true even after he buys her a new horse, and brings home a fur coat for her to wear to his work get-togethers, where he brags about his prowess, success and eagerness to expand his property portfolio with a city apartment. It takes time for Allison to confront Rory's lies, and for his efforts to swindle and cajole his way out of financial strife to tear apart the O'Haras' lives; however, that Rory's posturing and pretence will crumble isn't a matter of if, but when.
While it's obvious from the outset that trouble is afoot — from early images that survey the family's almost too-idyllic NY life, in fact — filmmaker Sean Durkin isn't in any rush to unleash The Nest's full nightmare. The writer/director made his feature debut with 2011's cult thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, so his big-screen career pre-dates Hereditary and Midsommar's Ari Aster, but he's just as committed to evoking a climate of pervasive, unshakeable dread. And, he wants his viewers to linger in it, because his characters must. Allison is forced to live with the knowledge that little is right, but the way she chain-smokes hurriedly illustrates that she also knows how far her fortunes could fall. Every move Rory makes is driven by his need to paint a gleaming portrait of himself, and he's aware that it's a reverse Dorian Gray situation: the shinier and flashier he makes everything seem to anyone who'll listen, the more he rots inside.
Durkin doesn't just rely upon an exacting pace and a festering mood of gloom, though. Reuniting with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul) after 2013 miniseries Southcliffe, he gives every second of The Nest an eerie look — whether staying a few beats longer than normal on its opening shot, lensing vast rooms to emphasise their emptiness, repeatedly peering at the film's characters through glass or breaking out the most gradual of zooms. A sense of distance echoes through the movie, mirroring how the O'Haras can never get close enough to what they really want. Reminders of conflict are perched everywhere, especially in the way that Erdély plays with light and shadow across the family's faces. Decadence abounds, too, but in an overstressed fashion via wood-panelled walls and deep colours seething with darkness. The score by Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry plays up the threat and menace, while few recent films have compelled their audience to pay such attention to their unsettling sound design.
All that tension and unease conveys not only Rory and Allison's domestic discontent — and, as one rebels and the other frets, Sam and Ben's as well — but also the false promises of chasing capitalism-driven fantasies. When, in a vulnerable exchange, Rory says that his job is pretending that he's rich, The Nest slices savagely into the toxic and false notion that money, belongings and status equal happiness. That should have viewers thinking about Mad Men again, but Durkin takes to the subject like he's making a biting horror movie rather the 21st century's best TV drama so far. The film is called The Nest, after all, and that luxurious abode evokes terror in a number of ways. It's the ultimate symbol of living beyond one's means and attempting to fake it till you make it. It's worlds away from the humble upbringing that Rory's trying to hide. It has more than enough space for Allison to fill with her worries, and to lose her sense of self in. And, in, every creak and suddenly open door, it reflects the paranoia that accompanies trying to be someone you're not.
Law is perfectly cast, and Durkin is now two for two, but Coon is as essential to The Nest as her fellow lead and her director. As she demonstrated in Gone Girl and on TV in The Leftovers and Fargo, she's so adept at cutting to the heart of a character's complexities with minimal fuss that her performances feel like their own form of shorthand. And, that's crucial here. As Rory's bluster sees him increasingly flounder, Coon ensures that audiences know exactly how it's affecting Allison at every turn. Cue many of The Nest's most haunting scenes, because there are few things more gut-wrenching than realising that the life you don't even love is a sham, but wading through it day after day nonetheless.