The Nest avoids beating a dead horse, but it does bury one. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In this second feature from director Sean Durkin following the 2011 debut showstopper Martha Marcy May Marlene, Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) and his wife Allison (Carrie Coon) move their small family to Rory’s native England from suburban New York, in their fourth move in a decade. Like WW84, this is a mid-eighties period piece, and at first theirs appears to be an ideal Reagan-era nuclear family, with teenage daughter Sam (Oona Roche) and ten-year-old son Ben (Charlie Shotwell) getting along in the way that siblings rarely do. We ultimately learn that the truth is a little messier (Allison was a single mother to Sam when she and Rory met and thus this is a blended family) and that this artifice is purely for the sake of creating a perfect impression to the outside world despite the reality being perfectly normal. The family is fine as it is, but Rory needs it to be more perfect, and like most of the facades that Rory spends so much time building, it’s an unnecessary gilding that endangers the foundation.
When proposing that they return to England so that Rory can go back to work for his old boss Arthur (Michael Culkin), Allison asks him if he’s hiding the truth about the family’s financial situation, with the implication being that it wouldn’t be the first time. Discussing the move with her mother (Wendy Crewson), the older woman tells her to simply trust in her spouse—”It’s not your job to worry, let your husband do that”—and Allison, mirthfully but sincerely, teases her that this is a worrisome ideology. When Allison and the kids arrive at their new home in England, they discover that Rory has rented a positively gigantic mansion, which has grounds on which he promises to build a six-stable barn for Allison’s horse Richmond and promised future stallions and mares, with the implication that Allison can one day resume equestrian instruction, which had been her occupation prior to Rory’s repatriation.
What plays out is, essentially, a dramatic version of the Simpsons episode “You Only Move Twice,” as each member of the family succumbs to negatives in their personal and social lives in their new environment. The long distance that the family must commute into London (it’s a little under an hour’s drive from Surrey to London in 2020 and was likely longer 35 years ago) wreaks havoc on their previous unity, which fell into place with ease in their earlier suburban life. Rory insists his children attend the best private* school, which results in Ben being bullied extensively and Sam spending time with a rougher crowd of local kids, presumably in rebellion against being expected to socialize with her fancypants classmates. Ben and Sam also drift apart, as Ben clings to Sam when their parents are away because the large, empty house frightens him. The house itself also immediately becomes another millstone around the struggling family’s collective neck as it’s too large for them to even furnish, although this doesn’t stop Rory from boasting at parties about their “farm” and the intent to purchase a “pied-à-terre in Mayfair” (a very chintzy part of London’s Hyde Park area) while Allison expresses discomfort with this; whether Rory’s dishonest or delusional, she’s still troubled, as well she should be. Things come to a head when a business deal that Rory is pushing Arthur to sign off on is rejected and Allison’s horse falls ill and collapses while she’s riding him; she has to go to a neighboring farmer for help (i.e., to put Richmond out of his misery) and, because Rory has allowed the phone bill to lapse, he’s unable to let her know that he’s spending the night in London, leaving Allison alone to bear the brunt of it all. The stress drives her to a point of dissociation, in which she declares that everyone in her family has become a stranger to her.
There’s nothing wrong with The Nest. In fact, it falls into my sweet spot of “woman on the verge.” Narratively, the film is solid, as the screenplay deftly weaves in good bits of foreshadowing early on that come into play later. When we first see Rory and Ben interacting, the two are playing soccer with one of Ben’s young friends, and although Rory wins, his son declares that he did so by cheating, demonstrating that Rory doesn’t let anything stand in his way, even when the opponent is his son and the stakes are as low as backyard bragging rights. We also get to see Allison in her element as a horseback riding instructor, where she deftly and calmly handles both the beasts and her clients, collecting their payments without wheedling or the slightest hesitation. She’s better at her job than Rory is at his, and although he’s no Gordon Gecko, he is a member of that deplorable group of eighties businessmen who turn money into more money by moving it around and for whom the impending deregulation (you know, the one that allowed wealth aggregators to plunder the economy of Western society and destroy the middle class) is a cause for celebration.
We are made to sympathize with Rory to an extent, as we’re told about his lousy childhood, including social exclusion and mediocre educational opportunities (which is what prompts him to overcompensate with the enrollments of Ben and Sam), although his mother, while cold, isn’t entirely unreasonable. She accuses Rory of never reaching out to her, and he retorts that she never called him, either, but we in the audience have no reason to disbelieve her complaint that Rory moved so much that she lost track of him. Ben is ten years old at this point and we’re told that this face-to-face reunion between Rory and his mother (orchestrated so that he can ask her for financial assistance) is the first time she’s been made aware that he’s married or that she has a grandson. However, while Rory’s story is tragic, it’s tragic in a classical way, as the ultimate cause of his ruination is not the change in broad social trends, or the dissatisfaction of his family as they overcome their culture shock and become accustomed to this new old world, or even his own poor handling of his emotions in the workplace (he’s allowed to have a lot more outbursts, consequence free, than would be allowed in a contemporary office). It would also be reductive to say that Rory’s life falls apart because of his greed, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s most accurate and honest to say that Rory’s loss comes equally from his unerring adherence to using the successes of others as the yardstick against which he measures himself, even when he could live comfortably within his means, and his devotion to the “fake it until you make it” ideology that has become even more common in the intervening decades. In his attempts to emulate success as part of a campaign to acquire the wealth that he craves and plays at having, he overextends what was likely a perfectly reasonable income, because he thinks that he deserves to have access to the same playground.
As Arthur tells Rory at one point, the latter has mistaken his coincidental success (that is, being in a rising tide that lifted all boats) for genuine intelligence and aptitude, which is simply untrue. He even tells the younger man that striving for a sudden, imminent payday to put paid to all of his current woes is foolish, as he should be striving to build something for himself over time instead of impatiently demanding his success now now now. And this is where the film missteps for me on a conceptual level, as it apparently presents Arthur’s advice about what Rory should do as a kind of blanket truth, when it isn’t. What Rory even does is kept deliberately obscured with industry buzzwords that ultimately mean nothing, and neither he nor Arthur are actually productive; they simply maintain the paradigm of ownership of the means of production and acquire wealth by buying and selling that labor. In case you forgot, labor creates all value, so make sure to write that one down somewhere that you see it every day. Allison’s manual labor that she performs for the neighboring farmer is the only work that we see anyone get any emotional satisfaction from, which isn’t a bad storytelling point, but Arthur’s presentation of the idea that a living wage can be earned simply by living within one’s means, delivered from the last point in Western history when upward social mobility through hard work actually was possible (before it was brought to an end by the very deregulation that Rory worships), misses the mark, although it’s possible that this was intentional and I’m being dense about it.
Like I said, there’s nothing “wrong” with The Nest. The performances are great, as Law effectively plays a man whose charm is so powerful he’s managed to convince even himself that his delusions are true, and he’s magnetic and contemptible in equal turns. You wouldn’t be able to accept a lesser actor in this role without thoroughly hating him, and that’s a testament. He’s also possibly the only actor who has ever managed to make BVD briefs look sexy, and at nearly 50 to boot. Similarly, Carrie Coon’s Allison is pitch perfect (and she’s proper fit, as one of Sam’s rude teenage friends notes). Each interaction contains the perfect amount of emotional distance and intimacy, and Coon is fantastic. By the time she really starts to fall apart, she’s held it together with such aplomb for so long that the audience feels her every revelation with empathetic exhaustion. I also like that there’s no beating around the bush about what the family’s problems are: there’s no infidelity (if anything, the couple’s sex life is the only thing about which they both remain passionate through the entire runtime), and all of the family’s anxieties stem entirely from Rory’s pathological obsession with money.
Outside of the performances, however, the whole thing feels very rote. Allison discovers that Sam has been smoking, but doesn’t confront her about it. Sam throws a rebellious teenage party when she’s supposed to be watching Ben. Ben discovers that his mother’s dead horse is starting to rise from the ground because it was buried improperly and has a little freak out about it (ok, maybe that last one is novel). There’s simply nothing new on the table, and a full throated denunciation of deregulated economics followed by a halfhearted commemoration of a time when a single breadwinner could provide–comfortably if not extravagantly–for a nuclear unit makes for a tonally confused film. Not to bring up Queen of Earth again, but that’s a film in which what’s being attempted here is successfully pulled off: a thriller where all of the violence is emotional and the tension comes from wondering who’s going to break first, and in what way. But where Queen made that work, Nest feels like a pale version that gets by solely on the strength of its performances and its cinematography (which is gorgeous), but which lacks the freakout that would take it to the next level.
*Here using the American definition of “private,” that is, a school which stipulates a hefty tuition and is not available to members of the general public and practices elitism and classism in practice even if it disavows it in theory. In England, the terms are reversed so that “public” schools in the U.K. meet this definition while their use of “private” generally correlates to the American “public,” i.e., state-funded. Yes, it is confusing.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond