For an autumnal, suburban-American, mid-’80s moment at the beginning of Sean Durkin‘s immaculate, clinically devastating “The Nest,” it seems Tolstoy‘s maxim about all happy families being alike might hold true. The O’Haras — husband Rory (Jude Law), wife Allison (Carrie Coon) and children Samantha (Oona Roche) and Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell) — do indeed seem happy, and not at all in particularly unusual ways. Father and son play soccer; daughter turns cartwheels and listens to The Cure like any self-respecting ’80s teen; husband and wife have an active sex life; 10-year-old Ben has a nice line in conspiratorial sideglances with his elder half-sister, and seems to understand that when Sam nicknames him “shit-for-brains,” it’s with affection. You could almost wonder why you feel so disquieted, seeing these perfectly chosen, seemingly innocuous vignettes play out so simply, why the repetition of little acts of routine domesticity, such as Rory bringing Allison a morning cup of coffee in bed, should feel so laden down with mood, like the heavy, electrified air before a thunderstorm.
On a formal level, it’s because, from the opening shot of the O’Haras’ well-appointed house, with its two-car garage, under a gray sky, DP Mátyás Erdély (who also shot “Son of Saul,” and Josh Mond‘s Durkin-produced “James White“) makes “The Nest” look almost exactly like a horror movie from the late 1970s/early 1980s, like Peter Medak‘s “The Changeling” or that part of a slasher movie before the doomed kids have left suburbia for the cabin in the woods. Matthew Hannam‘s precise editing lets everything breathe just a beat longer than strictly necessary, as though to keep us waiting for a jump scare that never comes. And Arcade Fire‘s Richard Reed Parry, turning in his first full-length score, is clearly working from the same memo. His ’70s-inflected psychothriller compositions loop subtly broken melodies over beds of uneasy strings, only to be interrupted by bursts of perfectly selected ’80s synthpop: Bronski Beat, The Communards, New Order.
Thematically though, it’s because Durkin’s coolly dispassionate perspective starts to reveal cracks in the glaze of this “happy family’s” happiness, that are not visible to the casual observer, or even to the family members themselves. Tiny hairline fractures appear — like the suppressed desperation behind Rory’s sudden suggestion that the family move for the fourth time in ten years — this time all the way to his native England, so he can pursue better entrepreneurial opportunities. Like the way Allison’s immediate anxious response is to ask if they’re ok for money. And like the way Rory too glibly assures her that they are.
The family does uproot itself and Allison, Sam and Ben fly out to join Rory after he’s already rented a huge Surrey mansion, all 17th-century floorboards, stained glass windows and tall tales about the time Led Zeppelin recorded an album here. New schools have been found for the kids, and outside in the extensive grounds, construction has begun on a set of stables so that Allison, who ran a riding school back in the States, can set one up here. Her beloved horse Richmond arrives sometime later.
But the horse remains spooked and restless and unsettled, like Allison herself, who chafes against the stuffy, sexist formality of English culture after the relative egalitarianism of the U.S.; like Rory whose Big Merger fails at the last minute and leaves him with mounting debts that are beginning to eat away at his carefully self-created facade of success; like Sam who goes partying with the local kids who are just using her; and like Ben who starts wetting his bed and getting into fights at school.
The performances are just as rich in detail as Erdély’s gorgeous cinematography, full of contrast and subtle shading between warm highlights and sinister velvety recesses. Law is terrific as the embodiment of resentful masculinity desperate to prove himself better than his deprived upbringing, driven vicious and a little mad by the smell of money in the air all around and his inability to access it. And a single scene with his bitterly estranged mother (Anne Reid) — who feels cast in the mold of one of Hitchcock‘s monstrously withholding matriarchs — provides all the backstory we need in the way Rory sarcastically mimics his mother’s offhand “Bless him” when they talk about his father.
But as cleverly as Durkin manipulates the perspective to give us time with each of the four O’Haras, once again it is Carrie Coon who emerges as MVP, gathering the film around herself, in a turn that bounces and crackles off Law’s increasingly reckless Rory, to create its own weather system. Sometimes Durkin expressly directs our attention toward her: one gradual creep-in during a soiree scene ever so slowly frames Rory out, to allow us to watch Allison’s expression darken imperceptibly, like day turning into night, as the speech they’re listening to exposes one of her husband’s many white lies. And later, a stunningly shot scene where a drunken and disgusted Allison dances by herself in a random pub to “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is made eloquent and meaningful by the way she is spotlit in a pool of light, her jerking head and shoulders disembodied like she’s a marionette suspended in mid-air.
“The Nest” is a somber, grown-up sort of movie, made with remarkable poise and maturity, and a level of craft so compelling it can be difficult to tear your eyes from the screen. And if it doesn’t have the catchy, religious-cult hook of Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” it has depth and resonance that arguably outstrip his 2011 Sundance Best Director winner. Set in the ’80s — cued through subtle costuming and production design, without a single Rubik’s Cube in sight — and containing direct references to Reaganomics and the era of rampant privatization in Thatcher’s U.K., still the film’s insights are not confined solely to that period. Rather, the cracks that eventually widen into fissures and then chasms in this family’s fragile veneer all spring from far more timeless fatal flaws like greed, entitlement, and mistrust, which are sicknesses any of us can carry inside us without even noticing.
All happy families are alike, wrote Tolstoy. But Durkin’s magnificent downer ultimately suggests that there might not be any such thing as a truly happy family–at least none that are not built on lies. The cuckoo that comes home to roost in “The Nest” is the idea that maybe there are only unhappy families and ones that haven’t called each other out on their mutually reinforcing bullshit yet. [A]