Nearly a decade after emerging with the unsettling psychodrama Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin has finally arrived with a follow-up to that horror-adjacent debut. That film launched the career of Elizabeth Olsen as its fractured titular character, and his latest, The Nest, should rightly send its underrated lead actress Carrie Coon into the stratosphere. But while this film also provides its female headliner with a rich role of stifled expression, here Durkin hones the forebodingly tense traumas of his first film into something less overtly menacing, yet still as keenly psychologically observed. Like a haunted house movie without the ghosts, The Nest thrills with a pervasive sense of unease and no catharsis, making for a special breed of melodrama that eschews the emotional demands of the genre.
Durkin’s also provides his leading lady with a key sparring partner in this film, turning out a two-hander that’s one of the most observant and uncompromising marital dramas since Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. Jude Law stars with Coon as the seemingly peaceful marrieds, Rory and Allison, quietly raising their two children in relative ease. When the opportunity comes for Rory to return to his native England with a new job’s promise of heftier payouts, he persuades Allison to uproot the family despite her unhappiness at the scenario. They arrive at their massive (rented) manor, which already feels filled with centuries of its own secrets for Rory and Allison to contribute some of their own.
Though it happens almost without resistance, the move occurs at the exact wrong time for each of the family members, with the corners of the house creating a dividing force between them all. Their son Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell) is on the precipice of puberty’s awkwards isolations, their older daughter Samantha (Oona Roche) throttles into her rebellious and experimental mid-teens. While Rory leans into excesses both financial and performative to keep up business appearances without any payoff, Allison finds herself without her own identity to claim in the family while isolated in a new country. Quickly, the warning signs on the state of their marriage begin to manifest – overtly in the form of Rory’s mishandling of money, and more symbolically in the horse that he purchases to assuage his wife’s passions.
Durkin infuses the film with a meditation on Reagan-era American affluence and overconfidence that contextualizes it as a fascinating reflection of modern concerns of privelege. Rory aims to push the family (or perhaps just himself and his ego) upward in the class strata, willing to fake it until he makes it, even if it means sinking them financially in the process. As an actor, Law still has the market cornered on men so desperate for approval and significance that they can’t see their own toxicity, resulting in a brilliant performance of impotent selfish rage.
But while Rory spins into male-ego-driven mockery, Allison implodes from his carelessness and unspoken expectations that she fall in line, and Coon delivers one of the year’s most revelatory performances. The actress is fascinating in Allison’s frequent stillness, lending the film an air of authenticity and unpredictability working in exhilerating tandem. It’s a performance so consumingly alive, where you could buy anything the performer summons – and Coon torches the film with uncliched, vivid, inspired moments of genius. All this, and she remains unflashy to suit Durkin’s vision of rattled malaise.
Thrillingly opposite of what you might expect, The Nest doesn’t present an embattled married couple in the articulate vein of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or even Marriage Story. Though one barn-burning scene allows Coon to deliciously upend the gender roles Rory so casually slips into while at dinner, this couple has to grapple with being blunter instruments than Rory wishes to present to the world. When Allison acts out in public, it’s a caustic swing; when Rory lashes out in private, he’s a petulant baby. It all amounts to a more realistic marital portrait from Durkin, one that subverts the melodrama’s tropes as it putrifies its tensions.
Exquisitely shot by Son of Saul cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, The Nest finds Durkin still at play in the terror of isolative external forces, but pivots in an unexpected and decidedly stone-faced direction. As satisfying as a picked scab, the film avoids the stanard beats of melodrama in ways that might frustrate those expecting the typical. But Durkin offers something truer to life that is still broodingly, floridly cinematic, and captures the futility of the American dream (even outside of America) with the cruelty of a hammer.