Burning Down the House

A nuclear family falls apart without money in Sean Durkin's latest, 'The Nest.'

The dream of suburban stability dies hard in Sean Durkin’s The Nest. While the opening credits roll, the camera holds its gaze on a single family home. Two cars sit idly at rest in the driveway. There’s no other activity on the street. No one’s walking a dog or riding a bike. The sense of stillness and isolation is enhanced by an impending fade to black. That darkness hovers around the edges of the frame and then bleeds out the scene before the movie begins.    

Scene two hones in on Rory (Jude Law) from a wide shot. We peer at him through a window while he’s making a telephone call. When the director moves inside the house, we hear his greeting briefly before the editor cuts away from the conversation. The feeling that something’s being withheld from the audience implies that his family, too, is unaware of his plans for them. His wife Allison (Carrie Coon), however, appears to be content with the routines of their life. She runs a horse stable, tends to her two children and is close with her parents who live nearby. 

When Rory wakes Allison up the morning after his telephone call, he delivers some news. He’s been asked to return to the British firm where he got his start (in some dubious corner of the finance industry). Initially, she’s reluctant to give up what they have and doesn’t want to uproot her children. But her husband’s enthusiasm, his innate salesmanship, convinces her. Or seems to. Rory soon thereafter decamps to England while Allison packs up their belongings.

Coon had a startling and devastating role on three seasons of the HBO series The Leftovers. Her character Nora experienced an extraordinary loss and then, counterintuitively, welcomed the grief to her side. The actress wasn’t performing unhappiness. She embodied it with every expression, utterance, and action. Allison, on the other hand, is less evolved. Her consciousness is in sync with the 1980s, when the movie takes place. There’s no reason for her not to believe in Rory’s plans for the future. She shields herself with an aura of innocence that looks, to the audience, like a willed act of ignorance. 

When she and the children step out of their cab in England, they arrive at a rural country estate Rory’s rented for the year. It’s a grandiose decision that baffles everyone. Doubt registers on Allison’s working class face but she says nothing. As the weeks pass by, the kids start to attend their posh new schools. While Rory is frequently away at his London office, an increasingly disconcerted Allison starts to realise the move abroad was a mistake.     

Tonally, the director is intent on creating a similar psychic landscape like the ones in Yorgos Lanthimos’ films. The Nest recalls, in particular, Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). The Killing is another study of a nuclear family that faces a crippling stress test. What Durkin omits, or can’t summon, is the pressure of something greater than his plot. Lanthimos conjures a pagan god — an agent of pure chaos — to foul up his characters’ souls. The Nest merely conforms to our narrative expectations. It’s a foregone conclusion that Rory will ruin the family unit. What happens from one scene to the next in The Killing is impossible to predict.

It is rare and admirable to see a story about a man who makes damaging career decisions that are unalterable. It’s uncomfortable to watch Rory overextend his family’s financial life in every possible way. His ambition stems from a real place; he grew up in a poor family. But Rory’s schemes, which never generate any money, only point to his unexceptional failure to be a reliable breadwinner. Meanwhile, his soul stays inaccessible, where it was introduced to us, behind a soundproof pane of glass.

Durkin is trying to get underneath the skin of someone who was corrupted by the pro-capitalist era of Reagan and Thatcher. It’s a more intimate take on Wall Street’s 1987 dictum that greed is good. When Rory and Allison leave their modest American suburb, within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, they’ve already lost everything. The rest of The Nest is like watching a house burn to the ground in slow motion.

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