In The Nest, a family moves into an English mansion in the countryside filled with opulent rooms, creaky staircases, and secret passages. The setup is familiar for a horror film: A happy couple buys a mysterious property and discovers, upon arrival, that something is terribly wrong with the house. The movie, directed by Sean Durkin, opens with appropriate portentousness, a discordant piano score clanging over the title card. But in this case, it’s not the house that’s the problem—it’s the family, and the greedy quest for status that first led them to this gargantuan manor.
The Nest is a long-awaited and brilliant follow-up from Durkin, who emerged in 2011 with his filmmaking debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, but hadn’t directed a movie since. His first work also had the overtones of a horror film and the narrative meat of a serious family drama, exploring the fraught relationship between two sisters after one of them is freed from a Manson-family-like collective. Nothing in The Nest is quite as dramatic as a murderous cult, but the same sense of dread pervades the thriller, as Rory (played by Jude Law) and Allison O’Hara (Carrie Coon) see their relationship crumble under the financial burden of the colossal home they’ve bought.
Essentially a haunted-house movie without any ghosts, The Nest has all the storytelling control that distinguished Durkin’s first film. Every tiny emotional shift and new resentment registers, building to more profound conflict. And though the plot is tightly focused on the central couple and powered by career-best work from Law and Coon, Durkin is spinning a larger yarn about a decade of excess (the film is set in the 1980s) and the illusory appeal of upward class mobility. In The Nest, wealth can rot the spirit as badly as any supernatural possession, a message that transcends its period setting.
The movie mostly takes place in Britain, where Durkin spent much of his adolescence; the country is dotted with grand edifices and crumbling estates, monuments to centuries of income stratification. Rory, a Londoner of working-class roots who found success as a New York stockbroker, moves back to the United Kingdom to capitalize on the economic boom times of the Margaret Thatcher era. He picks up his family—his horse-trainer wife, Allison; her daughter from a prior marriage, Sam (Oona Roche); and their son, Ben (Charlie Shotwell)—and relocates them to a home so massive that they can’t find a use for half of the rooms.
As global stock-market gains begin to level off, Rory’s dreams of growing his capital start to dim; his debts are piling up and financial gambles are disintegrating his savings. Law is devastatingly well cast here. The actor emerged as a Hollywood pretty boy in movies such as The Talented Mr. Ripley, but he has become far more interesting playing men whose fading boyish charms have been supplanted by grittier desperation. The best examples until now included Anna Karenina and Vox Lux, but The Nest is my favorite so far, showing Law winsome at one moment and seething and pathetic the next.
Coon has been one of the most transfixing performers of the decade since she emerged, almost out of nowhere, in 2014 with The Leftovers and Gone Girl (before that, she had a booming stage career). She’s since given terrific supporting turns in films such as The Post and Widows, but this is the first movie to hand her a meaty role, and she works wonders with it. Allison is beautiful, classy, and intelligent, but Coon communicates her underlying anxiety and insecurity, suggesting her unease with their new home from the second she steps into it. As Rory’s career starts to falter and the family suffers as a result, Allison is the conduit for much of that pain. She tries to balance the strange behavior of her children, the growing rift with her husband, and the physical decline of a home she never wanted to be in.
Now available to rent and buy online, The Nest is not as brutal a viewing experience as it might sound; it’s a slow burn, peppered with romantic interludes, raw tension, and bittersweet comedy. Not a lot of storytellers working in movies today take the time to lay the emotional foundation of each character. Durkin does, and when his characters crack, the destruction feels all the more pronounced. The Nest is one of the best films of the year: Though it’s set in the past, it’s about the feeling of one’s own home turning against you when the world outside feels all the more hostile—a theme that resonates far beyond its time period.