Is there any hope for Rory and Allison? That’s the question at the heart of “The Nest,” a wrenching, beautiful drama about a married couple that relocates from upstate New York to a drafty old estate outside of London, at which point their marriage unravels.
Their union was already frayed. But both adults were so comfortable in the family’s established routines, and so immersed in their chosen pursuits (he’s an investment banker, she raises horses and teaches riding), that warning signs didn’t register. Their relocation to England, where Rory grew up, is a black light pointed at a crime scene: it’s impossible not to see everything that’s gone wrong.
Their kids see it, too. The eye-rolling teenage disaffection of their elder daughter, Sam (Oona Roche), a girl fathered by Allison’s first husband, becomes overt once the move to England is complete, and slowly turns into blatant cynicism, hostility, and rebellion. Roche’s narrow-eyed stare whenever her parents have a go at special pleading is one of the film’s most devastating recurring images: her face is judgment. Rory and Allison’s youngest, the sweet and sensitive Ben (Charlie Shotwell), withdraws into himself, and you may start to fear for his physical safety (especially if you’ve seen “Ordinary People“; the young actor gives off palpable Young Timothy Hutton vibes).
Writer-director Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene“) has made a nearly perfect film here—the cinematic equivalent of of those substantial, long-but-not-too-long short stories that says everything about its subject without actually saying everything; or, perhaps conversely, a complex poem or song that takes you through the stages or aspects of a tumultuous relationship (like Stephen Sondheim’s “Sorry Grateful” from “Company,” or Baby Dylan’s “Lily and the Jack of Hearts” from “Blood on the Tracks”). Durkin’s script and direction are as economical and exact as they are compassionate and merciless, feeling deeply for these characters without cutting them any breaks. The cinematography (by Mátyás Erdély), editing (by Matthew Hannam) and score (by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry) are all on the same page, it seems. There’s nothing fussy about any distinct creative choice.
But as devastating as the film often is, the sheer beauty of individual moments is still elating. And that beauty is encapsulated in the simplicity and rightness of what each moment choose to focus on, whether it’s the sounds of Rory’s anxious breathing and his dress shoes crump-crumping on a gravel road as he walks home in silhouette at dawn after staying out in the city all night, or the creeping zoom shots that make it seem as if an unseen, icy intelligence is surveilling the family, or the wide shot of the drunk, rebellious Allison dancing alone in a nightclub, surrounded by strangers, or the long shot the shot of young Ben hiding in a cluttered room to escape his sister’s unauthorized, decadent party, or anything involving Allison and her beloved horses).
Law (who co-produced and championed the film) gives one of his greatest performances as Rory. The character feels like the sum total of every major role he’s played till now, from the Gatsby-like golden boy in the “The Talented Mr. Ripley” to Alfie and Pope Pius XIII on HBO’s “The Young Pope.” Fans of Burt Lancaster will appreciate the project’s spiritual kinship with Lancaster’s late cult classic “The Swimmer“—not just for the John Cheever-like balance of direct factual observation onscreen (here is what the characters did, action by action, line by line) and plausibly-deniable allusions to mythology, legend, and scripture (you think about what things “mean,” in a larger sense, even though the film/story never footnotes things for you); but also for how Law’s performance seems animated not just by a set of choices, but a philosophy, a vision of life; and perhaps also a self-inventory that connected the character of Rory to aspects of himself, as flattering or unflattering as the resulting realizations must have been.
Coon equals and in some ways exceeds Law here, and because she’s comparatively new to film and television (her breakthrough’s were on HBO’s The Leftovers” and the third season of FX’s “Fargo”), but she gives as performance as grounded, nervy, vulnerable, and technically flawless as any we’ve seen from more established actresses, and in a very different mode from the parts that put her on critics’ and viewers’ radar. This is a lead performance in the vein of Gena Rowland’s work with John Cassavetes in the 1970s, and it’s not just the character’s flowing, feathery blond hair that puts the connection across: it’s the way Coon lets you feel whatever the character is feeling, not in a showy or hand-holding way, but in the way that you’d feel what a good friend is feeling if you were in the same room with her during an awful moment in her life.
Coon has four, maybe five scenes in “The Nest” where her work is so focused and simple (in the sense of being direct and unadorned, not crude or simplistic) that they could stand for the movie in its totality. The greatest is probably a long dinner scene near the end of the film, in which Rory has cajoled and compelled her to accompany him as he and a coworker, Steve (a sturdy and affecting supporting performance by Akeel Akhtar), try to impress clients who could bring a lot of money into the company. Rory is trying way too hard, selling himself as a man of culture and taste who appreciates the finer things in live, but coming off as a glorified yob; Allison, who’s had enough of his delusions, can’t play along anymore, and lets out her seething resentment of Rory in little biting asides, like puffs of steam from a kettle that’s about to
“The Nest” clocks in at a brisk hour and forty-five minutes. But in the memory, it feels much longer (in a good way), because every scene, moment, line, and gesture stands for so many things at once, and exists on so many levels at once, without making a big deal of how much data and meaning is being conveyed. The result ranks with cinema’s best martial breakup stories, up there with “Shoot the Moon” (likewise built upon a Yankee-Brit union). And the final scene—set, like so many perfect films about the complexity of family relationships, at breakfast—is just right, allowing viewers to argue for or against the possibility (or advisability) of the marriage either repairing itself or accepting failure and moving on.
The one thing that (I think) everyone can agree on is that, by the time the film’s end arrives, parents and children and viewers are all in alignment and agreement about what’s wrong. The feeling of relief that accompanies such realizations allows a tale of escalating discomfort to end on a note of—well, not “hope,” exactly. Maybe positivity, or realism. Like driving around in a car that’s been neglected for months or years and that has a lot of things wrong with it, then finally admitting to yourself, perhaps while you’re pulled over on the side of the road in the rain in the dark, that you’d ignored warning signs and available information for too long, and ultimately have no one to blame for this disaster but yourself.