Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 04, 2020 9:44 am 
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Destructive delusions

It's evident that Sean Durkin is a director whose movies are not out to give you a good time. This is one where every scene conveys a sense that things are going terribly, terribly wrong. His memorably scary debut feature about a cult in upstate New York, Martha Marcy May Marlene (NYFF 2011), has now been followed, after a complicated nine years, by The Nest, a disturbing account of a family, a house, and a man dominated by fantasies of a dangerously impossible grandeur. Reports on Durkin today such as one by Michael Frank in Flood magazine, show the path has not been easy, and the story hints that his childhood was complicated by family problems and shifts of location, Canada, the US, and Surrey, in England, events that play into the story here. This is a film whose complexity and layers dawn on you further in retrospect: it won't leave you after you've seen it.

Surrey is where the ferociously hearty, confident, deeply angry and dangerously delusional Rory O'Hara (Jude Law) abruptly takes his American wife Allison (Carrie Coon of Gone Girl) and their two teenage kids, Sam and Ben (Oona Roche and Charlie Shotwell), much against Allison's will and to Sam and Ben's discomfort. Sketching in eighties social rules, Durkin has Allison's convivial mother (Wendy Crewson) advise her to do as her husband wants. Their life in America is gracious, and includes a big suburban house with stables. Rory has his brokerage/banking job and Al is satisfyingly training horses and teaching riding and has a fine horse of her own she loves called Richard. None of this travels well over to England. All that crosses over smoothly is Rory's insatiable need to pretend to himself he is rich.

Next we know the family has arrived to the expensively rented house, a grand burt unspeakably ugly, enormous, empty manse dating to the fifteenth century (with eighteenth-century floors) that needs work. We get, perhaps, a haunted house movie, but with only minor haunting. The real haunting is Rory's past, and his present lies. A sudden surprise visit later to his long estranged mother (Anne Reid) helps fill in how ordinary, common, and humiliated Rory's early years made him feel, and how ferocious is his need to plaster over all that with images of success, and wealth and poshness. What he has set up here is not going to work.

That emerges when we see Rory with a man named Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin), a former boss, whom he's arranged to go back to work for in his London brokerage firm. They will be at cross purposes, and Rory's scheme for a major merger to beat the coming "Big Bang" will go awry, as will a more modest scheme with an associate in the firm, Steve (Adeel Akhtar), involving Norwegian fish farms. Several social gatherings show further disruption, and perhaps hint at how the film's mid-1980's setting may entail further discomfort for persons displaced in England by nationality, sex, or social background.

The children are more or less unhappy but buckle down for a while in their new schools, a very posh one for Ben and an ordinary one for Sam, who isn't Rory's daughter. Everything about the new life emerges as mainly designed to convey high status upon Rory, but he has vastly overextended to set it all up. Allison's life leads her to more open rebellion. Richard, her horse, is shipped over to England, but something is wrong.

I do not much like how the horse is used: it's one moment where Durkin goes too expressionistic, too haunted, on us. And one can complain that everyone here is shallowly drawn, and that there could have been more grace notes, more humor. In his Variety review, Peter Debruge has made the flattering comparison of this storyline with Kubrick's The Shining, only to undercut it by saying this is easily the duller of the two films. It may be more fully thought out and complexly constructed than Martha Marcy May Marlene, but it doesn't snap and pop from time-shifting moment to moment as that movie does.

But Durkin is a careful and impressively committed craftsman and there is nothing shallow about the excellent editing by Matthew Hannam, the fine cinematography of Hungarian master dp Mátyás Erdély (of Miss Bala, Son Of Saul, and Sunset), though Debruge has a point when he said The Nest "feels like a no-go for streaming" because Erdély's images are too dark to come over well on a small screen.

This is a memorable, personal, and original film far more subtle than its haunted house, horror overtones might at first suggest. It is also splendidly well acted by all, particularly Law and Coon, who give career best performances. And as you will see, the house, anything but the cosy place of the title, is another star performer. There is a link to Joanna Hogg in both the command of English social unease and particularly the focus on destructive male ego also found in Hogg's The Souvenir from last year.

The Nest, 107 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, showing at a few other international festivals, including Moscow, Zurich, Ghent, Gotham, and Deauvile Sept. 2020, where it was the closing film and won three awards. US release by IFC began Sept. 18, 2020; its digital release began Nov. 17. Metascore: 80%.

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