Saturday 11 September 2021

The money pit: "The Nest"

It's been ten years since the writer-director Sean Durkin broke through with his Sundance Sensation™ Martha Marcy May Marlene, but the notes of disquiet he sounded there - doubts about those we've elevated to positions of power and responsibility - have lingered over the intervening years. Durkin's new film, the 1980s-set The Nest, presents as an origin story for that strain of corporate capitalism that has come to bedevil and endanger us all. The title refers to a dream home - owned by English trader and deregulation zealot Rory (Jude Law) and his American trophy wife Alison (Carrie Coon) - which comes to be undermined over the course of the film's 100 minutes. Unhappy in the US, Rory persuades Alison to uproot and relocate to the Surrey commuter belt, where the couple and their two variously troubled children are installed in an 18th century country house, complete with secret doorways and Elizabethan banqueting table. It's meant to massage Rory's fantasies of being king of the castle, lord of the manor - and yet, barely twenty minutes after the family has unpacked, husband and wife are seen inspecting an even grander, pricier property. There is a kind of social climbing that leaves the afflicted permanently unhappy, because they always want more; their houses never become homes, because that demands a contentment and warmth money - even Toryboy trader money - cannot buy. Sure, everything Durkin puts on screen looks rosy enough: this is a film of pristine interiors, good manners, assets in the bank. (I suspect cinematographer Mátyás Erdély was sent away to study Gordon Willis's touchstone Godfather interiors.) Yet we're heading towards Black Friday, and the kind of crash that happens when corners are cut and safety nets ripped out. Brace yourself.

I found Martha Marcy May Marlene striking but mannered, and a little tinny; I can recall its alienated mood, but I haven't thought about its plot or characters since I saw it. The Nest, on the other hand, proves elegantly unsettling, clearly the work of a newly mature sensibility taking his time to reveal the full extent of the rot blighting this household, and seeping into the wider culture. Durkin has retained one visual tic from his debut, and it's an effective one: the detached-seeming establishing shot that slowly tracks in on its subjects, suggesting surveillance of some kind, or the lens of a microscope being lowered towards a slide until it buckles and cracks. Durkin sometimes nails down his characters' desolation in a single image. Watching Rory standing alone on the platform of a grey railway station at some ungodly hour, the better to get into the office before anybody else, we're forced to consider a question: why would you want this to be your life? (The shot is rhymed, poignantly, with a later portrait of Rory's young son Ben (Charlie Shotwell) punting a football around the mansion's back garden: desolation, financial and emotional, is about all that's trickling down here.) There's scant consolation in Durkin's dialogue, which goes towards status (Rory pitching the house to his family, and his wife to his clients) or the flatly transactional ("you're so fucking risk-averse"). Not unlike 2005's Buy It Now (Virginity for Sale), the breakthrough film of Durkin's compadre Antonio Campos, The Nest is more of a diagnosis than a narrative per se, each scene burrowing further under the skin and into the cold hearts of characters whose worldview would - on paper, or at a party - be very hard to get on with. Here's where the actors come in.

With his familiar, unshakeable air of privilege, Law comes on like the widest boy anybody's put on screen for several decades, but Rory is also a loving husband (in as much as he loves Alison for what she represents) and a proud father. It's just that work has pushed him in with a bad crowd, warped his sense of what's valuable. He's weak - desperate to impress the lads - and therefore pitiable in some way, and Law aces the technical challenge of mouthing great reams of specious corporate bollocks: you and I aren't buying it, but we can't rule out that others might. His wife, for one, who may be more compelling yet. Like a Home Counties equivalent of Edie Falco's Carmela Soprano, Coon's Alison is a woman who senses something's off, but who's been living far too comfortable a lifestyle to object too forcefully to how it's been attained. (For evil to triumph, kindlier souls have to turn a blind eye.) In her acclaimed TV work (The Leftovers, Fargo), Coon has tended to play downtrodden or put-upon; reinventing herself for the big screen, she now sports an extravagant blonde flick of hair, demonstrates her showjumping prowess, and approaches Blanchettian levels of hauteur before Alison figures out the true cost of all this leisure. One potential stumbling block: another in the recent cinema's line of metaphorical equines, although given all the haphazard flogging going on offscreen, it's perhaps inevitable the film should finally lead us to a dead horse. Mostly, The Nest gripped me because it retains a beady eye for human weakness: Rory sheepishly showing up on the doorstep of the mum he left behind on a council estate (a merciless cameo from Anne Reid), the rage boiling up in Law's eyes as Alison sabotages a business dinner. I caught the film on the same day a leading British tabloid covered the Johnson government's controversial plan to fix social care with a cartoon of the PM rolling dice beneath the headline "BOJO'S BIGGEST GAMBLE YET", as if the running of a country was now comparable to a carefree casino stag weekend. Durkin here offers a warning from history, illustrating what often happens when you put gamblers and chancers in charge. Sometimes it takes an American to show us Brits who we really are.

The Nest is now playing in selected cinemas.

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