There was a trend circulating Film Twitter earlier this week where people posted stills from four movies they love “more than anybody they know.” For me, one of those would undoubtedly have to include 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, which stands amongst the finest directing debuts of that decade.
Writer-director Sean Durkin’s tale was an unnerving thriller with sparse storytelling complemented by an abundance of treasures — namely an unbelievable showcase for Elisabeth Olsen as a woman fleeing from a sinister cult and creeping cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes — spun together in a thematically dense web that best recalled the paranoid horror of early Roman Polanski.
To say I was eager for Durkin’s follow-up feature, The Nest (coming a mere nine years later), would be one hell of an understatement. It’s decidedly lighter fare than Martha; instead of witnessing a woman’s sexual and moral degradation at the hands of an abusive cult leader, we’re now just privy to a family’s slow and painful deterioration. The film has a pair of formidable leads in Carrie Coon and Jude Law as the wife and husband, and The Nest is worth your time for their performances alone. Both actors are given ample space to dig into their crumbling psyches, and it’s especially gratifying to see a filmmaker give Coon a long-deserved chance to, you know, do something. She doesn’t let the opportunity go to waste.
Rory (Law) is a financier living an apparently stable life in the mid-1980s with his wife, Allison (Coon), teenage stepdaughter and preteen son in an Upper East Side condo in New York when a business opportunity in London inspires him to move with his family across the pond into a massive, gloomy mansion. Rory, we quickly realize, is more than a little full of it, and Law plays the character as pitiable rather than loathsome. His insecurity about maintaining an image of success grows increasingly evident, and while his coworkers all find him pathetic, the narrative centers on Coon’s gradual acceptance of what everyone else seems to know.
Rory’s downward spiral into selfishness is sadly rather predictable. But Law makes his desperation consistently engrossing, and it culminates during a sequence where Rory’s boss (who amusingly resembles a caricature of a business fatcat with his oversized jowls and portly figure) tells him a high-stakes deal he’s been banking everything on is dead in the water. Rory goes from calling his boss an ignorant ass right to his face to eventually tucking his tail between his legs and kissing his feet. There might not be much to his character on the page, but Law’s portrayal is refined enough to make it genuine.
It’s Coon’s performance that will likely generate the most discussion and for good reason. Durkin clearly spent the most time on her arc, and it almost singlehandedly carries The Nest’s (often very on-the-nose) thematic threads. She’s asked to do something far more challenging as the family matriarch, battling a flurry of conflicting emotions while trying to project a sense of composure to both her family and a slew of new acquaintances. A major subplot involves a new horse and stable her husband buys to keep her busy at their new manor, and although the horse and his, um, journey becomes a visual metaphor so obvious it borders on unintentional hilarity, Coon’s commitment and Durkin’s direction keeps even the most hamfisted bits afloat.
Now, about that direction. In the nine years since Martha, Durkin’s command of mood hasn’t missed a beat. Like his first movie, The Nest has heavy horror overtones that create overwhelming dread from the opening frame, even when we’re unsure just what horrors are actually lurking in the dilapidated corners of this family’s new mansion. Mátyás Erdély’s cinematography brings it all together, using ominous zooms and symmetrical framing to paint the home as a malevolent force sucking in its new owners. Imagine if you removed all the supernatural Satanic elements of Rosemary’s Baby to focus solely on the strained marriage between Mia Farrow and John Cassavettes’ characters, and you’ll have an idea of what The Nest is going for.
As impeccable as Durkin’s craft is (may his next film come much, much sooner), the script’s lack of ambiguity does ultimately stop the whole endeavor from achieving the same greatness he achieved with Martha. Whereas that screenplay wisely allowed viewers to draw their own conclusions about societal alienation and materialism, and our own complicitness in creating evil like the cult its protagonist escapes, no one will walk out of The Nest with too manylingering questions. It ends (mostly) where you expect it will from the beginning, and with a less heavy hand;, Durkin perhaps could have made a superior sophomore effort here. Nonetheless, there are so few directors striving for what he is here, not to mention with this level of sophistication. The Nest may be emptier than expected, but it’s still a morbidly fun place to visit.