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Review: In ‘The Nest,’ Jude Law and Carrie Coon give us an unnerving anatomy of a marriage

Carrie Coon and Jude Law in the movie "The Nest."
(IFC Films)

The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

“The Nest,” Sean Durkin’s beautifully chilled second feature, opens on a house in a 1986 New York suburb, with two cars in the driveway, a pool in the backyard and a faint breeze rustling the foliage. It’s the dawn of a new morning for Rory O’Hara (Jude Law), who peers distractedly out the window as he makes a phone call, one that will upend the seemingly contented, comfortable life he’s built for himself and his family. Is that dissatisfaction we see in his face as he surveys his surroundings? Or is it anxiety, even desperation — an awareness that even when he doesn’t have nearly enough, it could all be taken away from him in an instant?

As Law’s performance shrewdly suggests, the answer lies somewhere in between. Within moments, Rory springs an idea on his wife, Allison (a brilliant Carrie Coon), that turns out to be a done deal: They’re moving to the U.K., where Rory grew up, and where he plans to seize a lucrative new opportunity at a London trading firm. Allison is slow to come around, but come around she always does; this is the family’s fourth move in a decade and by far their most drastic. That becomes clear when Rory gives his wife and their two children, Samantha (Oona Roche) and Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell), a tour of the manor house he’s rented in the Surrey countryside, complete with 17th century woodwork and a stable where Allison, a riding instructor, can keep her horse.

You know what they say about something that looks too good to be true, and that might even be overstating things in the case of the O’Haras’ new home, a sparsely furnished cavern of a house that suggests the backdrop of a domestic horror movie. And in a way, that’s precisely what it is. No jump scares are pending, fortunately, though the measured rhythms of Matthew Hannam’s editing and the brooding dissonances of Richard Reed Parry’s score might lead you to suspect otherwise. The gorgeously shadowy images accentuate the story’s narrative resemblance to “The Shining,” even borrowing a few of Stanley Kubrick’s gliding camera moves and symmetrical compositions. (The picture was shot on 35-millimeter film by Mátyás Erdely, the Hungarian cinematographer known for his bravura work on László Nemes’ “Son of Saul” and “Sunset.”)

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Charlie Shotwell, Jude Law and Carrie Coon in the movie "The Nest."
(IFC Films)

Durkin’s formal smarts were already apparent from his brilliantly destabilizing 2011 debut feature, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which used eerie imprecisions of time, narrative and geography to suggest the irreparable splintering of a young woman’s psyche. The antagonist in that movie — apart from perhaps Martha, Marcy May or Marlene herself — was nonetheless readily identifiable as a murderous sex cult, a malevolent external force. Physical violence was also the primary threat in the 2013 British miniseries Durkin directed, “Southcliffe,” a multithreaded crime drama set in motion by a deadly shooter’s senseless rampage.

Although it flirts with the conventions of cinematic horror, “The Nest” is a drier, subtler exercise in creeping dread. Its refusal to give concrete definition to the menace at hand, which will surely be a source of frustration for some, is also a sign of Durkin’s growing confidence. He attends to the details of his characters’ home life and their ’80s milieu with such matter-of-fact specificity — the longish haircuts, the slightly oversized fashions, the snatches of Heart, New Order and the Psychedelic Furs on the soundtrack — that you may not fully see the emotional abyss he has quietly opened beneath them.

And despite the compressed time frame, the O’Haras have been sitting astride that abyss a while. You sense it immediately in the sibling solidarity that binds Samantha and Benjamin, the alliance they’ve quietly struck against the ever-looming specter of their parents’ unhappiness. And you feel it in every interaction between Rory and Allison, whose tender moments and still-passionate sex life conceal deep stress fractures, worn down by unending patterns of doubt and distrust.

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On the one hand, the impending collapse of their finances and their marriage is clearly Rory’s fault: He’s a reckless spender and an unreliable provider, and his need to seem rich and cultured in front of his associates goes hand-in-hand with a string of disastrous business decisions. In a recent MEL Magazine essay, the critic Tim Grierson noted that Law, a gifted actor who was perhaps prematurely sold to the public as a movie star, seems almost too ideally cast these days as scoundrels and strivers — men who are “either humbled or indignant because their lives didn’t exactly work out.” His wrenching performance here feels like a furious rejection, and thus an inevitable confirmation, of that assessment.

Jude Law in the movie "The Nest."
(IFC Films)

“You’re exhausting,” Allison tells Rory, and indeed he is, like Icarus and Sisyphus rolled into one. She’s made of tougher stuff, whether she’s secretly hoarding cash to pay the household bills, dealing with Benjamin’s anxieties and Samantha’s moods, or tending to her ailing horse, whose sudden decline sounds a blunt but effective note of symbolic foreboding. But if we are lured more readily to Allison’s side, the movie doesn’t entirely absolve her of her responsibility, her own willingness to suspend her better judgment and deny the truth about the feckless man she married. Coon gives us a minutely detailed study in slow-motion disillusionment: Watch her expression almost imperceptibly darken at one of Rory’s swanky work functions, when she silently absorbs the latest of his many lies; some weeks later, at another dinner with his colleagues, she’s in no mood to maintain the charade.

It’s no accident that their tensions seem to flare most openly in public, at events whose stiff formality brings out a defiant bluntness, even blowsiness, in Allison. Their tensions may be rooted, abstractly, in the materialist greed and prescribed gender roles of their particular decade, but they are also born of differences in class and culture. You can picture their fairy-tale romance before it went sour; she was swept off her feet by a dashing Brit and he fell hard for “a beautiful blond American girl.” He utters those words in the movie’s most revelatory scene (featuring a dark, chiseled gem of a performance from Anne Reid), in which Rory peers into the shadows of his own unhappy childhood and finds a cold, indifferent void staring back at him.

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At times it seems that void will swallow “The Nest,” which is borne along on such forceful undercurrents of rage, insecurity and despair that it seems destined to spiral toward tragedy. I’ll say no more, except to note that what makes Durkin’s vision so powerfully unsettling is its ease with ambiguity, its ability to make cruelty and tenderness seem like flip sides of the same human coin. The last shot pointedly answers the first one, with the dawn of another morning: Nothing has been resolved but everything has been laid bare. Whether that strikes you as horrific or oddly hopeful, it feels awfully close to home.

‘The Nest’

Rated: R, for language throughout, some sexuality, nudity and teen partying

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 18, Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry; the Frida Cinema, Santa Ana; Regency Directors Cut Cinema at Rancho Niguel, Laguna Niguel; and in general release where theaters are open


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