The title of The Nest, a moody new thriller from director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) refers to a gorgeous Victorian house outside of London. It’s the new home of the O’Hara clan: Rory (Jude Law), Allison (Carrie Coon), and their two children, who have moved from America. The house is dark and enormous, and it has those little details that make it impossible for an overzealous buyer to resist. The dining table is so big it can’t fit in any other house, so it comes with the place. There are secret doors. Oh, and Led Zeppelin stayed there once when they were recording an album. It’s far too big and expensive for a family of four, but Rory is the kind of guy who buys a house he can brag about, and then figures out how to live in it.
In the opening scenes, however, the O’Haras seem like a perfectly happy family. Rory and Allison both enjoy their jobs; he’s a trader, and she runs a horse training business. It’s a second marriage for both, but their kids get along, and they’ve all merged into a highly-functional family unit. They don’t see the warning signs, but we do. When Rory proposes the move back to his native England so he can rejoin his old firm, Allison resents it, noting that it’s their fourth move in ten years, and she worries about the money problems she fears Rory isn’t telling her. After sharing these concerns with a friend, she receives the following advice: “It’s not your job to worry. You leave that to your husband.”
Over the course of The Nest, Allison will start worrying, stop buying her husband’s lies, and watch her tightly-knit family start to unravel. That spooky old house must have something to do with it, but Durkin only hints at a supernatural presence, instead focusing his lens on the terrors a man can inflict upon his family when he’s not honest with himself. Durkin does use a few tricks of the horror trade; he can pull off a slow zoom that Stanley Kubrick would admire, and the insistent throbbing strings on the soundtrack pulse fear through your veins. But forget about a bloody rampage. Durkin won’t even give us the slightest bit of catharsis. Instead, he creates a simmering tension that never quite boils over.
It’s thrilling to watch a master craftsman execute his strange, precise vision, and the actors give riveting performances that ground the formal tension in human anguish. Law is riffing on a character he has played many times before – there’s more than a little Dickie Greenleaf from “The Talented Mr. Ripley” here – although he digs deeper, letting us glimpse more of the ugly desperation shining through his hollow shell. All eyes, however, are on Coon, who embodies Allison’s liberation with righteous anger. As she grows more fed up with Rory’s nonsense, she takes to insulting him in public, abandoning him at business dinners (where she’s supposed to be playing the supportive wife), and, in one glorious scene, dancing by herself in a crowded nightclub for the sheer thrill of it. In other hands, this could be glorious fun, but jailbreaks rarely are. Coon plays to the reality of her character and shows the pain of extricating herself from the bonds of a bad marriage.
Despite these virtues, The Nest is a little more interesting to think about afterwards than to actually watch. It’s undoubtedly an impressive achievement, but it feels like we have seen it before, and there comes a point halfway through when you realize that Durkin’s vision is not supported by an original point strong enough to match its skillful execution. Like a bad marriage, you find yourself frustrated with its inevitability, but it gets by on that initial spark, and keeps you hanging on despite a nagging sense that this can’t be as good as it gets.
The Nest is available to stream on Tuesday, November 17.