There isn’t much ambiguity to The Nest, a family psychodrama from Martha Marcy May Marlene writer-director Sean Durkin, but there are strong performances all around—including a powerhouse one from Carrie Coon.
Coon plays Allison O’Hara, a horse trainer and wife to Rory (Jude Law), an English financier. Along with Samantha (Oona Roche), Allison’s teen daughter from a previous relationship, and Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell), the younger son they had together, the couple live a seemingly idyllic, upscale life in a woodsy, modernist bungalow outside of New York City, which Durkin’s camera slowly, creepily zooms out from over the opening credits. After a few scenes establishing the family’s rhythms—Rory gently waking Allison up each morning with coffee, teasing family dinners in the evening—Rory makes an unwelcome proposal: given the coming financial boom expected in London, the family should pick up and move. To sweeten the deal, he even promises a country estate where Allison could have a stable of her own.
It doesn’t seem like a good idea, and as The Nest proceeds those suspicions are increasingly confirmed. At first Durkin is delicate about the family’s discombobulated state, as when Allison’s horse refuses to go into the trailer for its transatlantic flight. There’s also a telling shot of the family quietly sitting at the massive table in their cavernous dining hall, which stands in stark contrast to the earlier images of the four of them cozily commiserating around a crowded dinette. Things get increasingly worse (and are given a sinister edge by the foggy cinematography and insinuating score): Benjamin is bullied at school, Rory’s business prospects dim, and the horse … well, let’s just say that the horse goes from being a subtle bit of foreshadowing to an almost comically overbearing metaphor.
Still, the performances make up for any lack of narrative surprise. Even the supporting roles—particularly Roche as the O’Haras’ deadpan daughter and Michael Culkin as Rory’s impressively jowled boss—are given electricity and bite, both in the writing and the acting. (Roche’s vacillating between endearment and disdain for her parents is dead on.) And if Law doesn’t have the most complicated of characters to play—we’re pretty sure Rory is a weasel from the start, and he only grows more fur as the movie continues—Law layers each moment with degrees of cockiness, insecurity, and low-level panic. There’s a brief scene in which Rory visits his estranged mother to spin a boastful yarn (that she’s not buying) and the tiny constrictions crossing his face are incredible.
But The Nest is Coon’s triumph. She gives Allison such a sense of command and determination, especially in the early horse-training scenes, that Rory seems like the ineffectual partner right from the start (his eagerness to make breakfast and pick up the kids from school almost seem like attempts to make up for that fact). It’s somewhat hard to believe Allison would agree to the move, except that we understand that she’s long been susceptible to Rory’s sales pitches. In England, though, the scales begin to fall from her eyes (almost literally, in a gradual close-up in which Coon imperceptibly registers Allison’s dawning awareness). There’s an electric dinner between the couple at a sumptuous restaurant in which Allison calls Rory out on their bereft finances and then proceeds to order every expensive item—for the both of them—on the menu. A later, bitter standoff between them at home teeters dangerously on the edge of violence (with Allison suggesting she can more than hold her own). After that, a glammed-up Allison attends a dinner with Rory’s clients and gleefully sabotages it, celebrating afterwards by dancing with herself at a nearby nightclub. The Nest is set in the 1980s, and during these moments Coon thrillingly delivers a mash-up of Linda Hamilton’s Terminator toughness and Melanie Griffith’s Working Girl hair.
From there things spiral downward, in an extended parallel sequence, for all of the O’Haras. Durkin lends this a touch of horror, as he did in Martha Marcy May Marlene, though we never really get a sense that anything other than natural (if nasty) domestic strife is at play. The Nest proceeds pretty much how we expect before ending on a grace note that feels well-earned. It’s a compelling story, but what makes the movie special is the fact that we’ve had Coon to watch along the way.