The Nest depicts a marriage crumbling under life’s grandiose aspirations, but it really is Carrie Coon’s film for its calmly calibrated performance.
Anna Karenina begins with a statement as often refuted as quoted: “Happy families are all the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In Tolstoy’s generalization there is a paradox. Being happy and being equal are contradictory concepts. There is comfort in conformity, but conformity in comfort leads to unhappiness. Because we have been conditioned to want more than – and by extension to be different – than everyone else. That’s why Rory O’Hara (Jude Law), in Sean Durkin’s second feature The nest, decides to uproot his family from their American idyll to seek the fantasy of a better life in the UK.
Happy families don’t make for great stories either. Unhappy families, on the other hand, are catnip. There is drama in dysfunction. And the O’Haras are as dysfunctional as they come. However, that’s not how they start. A chic suburban New York home complete with white picket fences and a backyard pool—they certainly lived a good life. Wife Allison (Carrie Coon) likes to ride horses and works as an instructor. Kids Sam (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell) are about as happy as a teen and pre-teen can be. Rory is a trader who is always looking for the next big deal. His next will rock the domestic bliss and all its familiar comforts as he drags the family across the Atlantic.
On the other hand, a centuries-old mansion outside of London awaits them. Too much house for a family of four, the purchase is a symbol of Rory’s inflated ego. The mansion, a mere shadow of its former glory, repels all heat and light. With the dark hallways, creaky floorboards and stained glass windows, it could very well have been the setting for a Gothic horror. However, they are not ghosts that haunt the O’Haras. It’s lies and deceit.
Mátyás Erdély’s camera snoops around the family, cautiously at a distance at first, but gets closer as they split up. Isolated from each other, the atmosphere becomes stifling in the old mansion, a crumbling facade devours them from the inside. A string-driven continuous line from Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry makes the mood damn almost stuffy.
Things unravel, not with a dramatic acceleration, but with a lingering inevitability. While Rory pursues his big ambitions, Allison tries to keep the family together, even as everyone retreats into their own world. Snapshots reveal the family’s maladjustment to moving: Ben starts bedwetting after being bullied at his new private school, Sam turns to drugs to ease her boredom, and Allison battles her loneliness locked in a large empty house. Even Allison’s horse Richmond struggles to adapt.
Durkin uses Richmond as a symbol of Rory and Allison’s disintegrating marriage. For Rory, the horse has little more than ornamental value, something that elevates its status as a luxury car. For Allison, it’s a “living, breathing, animal” that she tries to save despite adverse circumstances. Just like their marriage. Except she might just pull a dead horse.
Durkin deviates from the nostalgia that has come to romanticize the 80s and washes away the color and warmth with cold blues and grays. The mid-1980s forced everyone who lived through the period to change. Ronald Reagan was in power in the US. Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Markets were deregulated. The ambitious went wherever the opportunity presented itself, hoping to gallop through life on the back of a fast buck. Working-class Rory is highly motivated to climb the social ladder. He basically uses his upbringing to justify why the world owes him more (“I had a bad childhood, and I deserve this, and I earn a lot more.”) Plus, he’s British. Thus, his idea of success is different from those trying to realize the American Dream. At the top of the ladder is not the suburban middle class, but the aristocracy.
This cultural difference plays a role in the crumbling of Rory and Allison’s marriage. Because Allison knows Rory’s routine all too well. To marry is to live with a witness who has seen it all. When Rory tries to convince her to move to England, she tells him, “Stop trying to sell me,” because she’s heard his sales pitch before and seen the entire production. Weeks into their move, when she starts hiding her own money in a box, she hides it because she knows Rory will eventually look for it. And he does. What makes their domestic crisis ripe for vivisection is that Allison’s attitude makes him aware of Rory’s sincerity.
Tensions reach a turning point at a dinner party when Rory tries to impress a client with expensive bottles of wine and tickets to see Anthony Hopkins in a play. Allison sniffs-laughs, shouts his delusion, and leaves. She’s tired of playing the supportive wife. Gender roles are doomed. So she goes to a nightclub, sips some vodka tonics and takes to the dance floor alone. She’s finally got her way.
Law offers a fragmentary study of a man desperately trying to keep up the facade that everything is going to be okay. When Rory is defeated in yet another failed venture, Law reveals a pitiful man who is tired of pretending. But this is really Coon’s movie. In a calmly calibrated performance, she depicts Allison’s unraveling with small but striking changes in posture and cadence, which conveys so much with an refractory gaze. Durkin gives Coon a rich character study that she can really master, just like he did with Elisabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Keep in mind that Durkin isn’t judging Rory so much as criticizing the system that pushes us to never be happy with what we have, and always strive for more. He criticizes a culture that promotes extravagant spending as a pretext for success, draws people into debt and destroys families. When we see the O’Haras sitting at the table in the final scene, there is resentment about what happened and concern about what the future holds. But they are all unhappy together at the moment. Hope goes along with some understandable doubts about whether they can get through this latest setback together. In this way, the counter-quote suggested that Nabokov in There is also applies: “all unhappy families are more or less alike.”
The Nest will be available for sale and rent on BookMyShow Stream from September 10.
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