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‘The Nest’ mostly empty

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Crafting a good domestic drama isn’t easy. One has to balance the necessity for dramatic tension and elevated stakes with the desire to maintain a level of verisimilitude, all while being sure to tell a compelling story. All movies require a degree of investment from the viewer to be effective, but family-driven drama particularly needs that buy-in. When it all works, it makes for a fantastic film.

When it doesn’t, well … that’s when you might get something like “The Nest.”

The film – written and directed by Sean Durkin – wants to be about the escalating disintegration of a family whose entire world is built on smoke and mirrors, a phantom foundation of security whose crumbling reveals wounds and resentments both old and new. And it is – kind of. But while those elements are present, the film as a whole feels like something of an empty vessel, an interesting package with nothing inside.

In a way, it seems as though style and atmosphere were used in lieu of storytelling, rather than to enhance the story. Because while “The Nest” has some brooding and foreboding vibes, the truth is that not much actually happens. Thanks to a pair of exceptional actors in the lead and an undeniably evocative aesthetic eye, there’s engagement to be found here, but again – there’s an absence at the film’s core that I found tough to shake.

Rory (Jude Law, “The Rhythm Section”) is an English commodities broker married to an American horse trainer named Allison (Carrie Coon, “Widows”); they have two kids, Samantha (Oona Roche, TV’s “The Morning Show”) and Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell, “Eli”). The family lives in the States, but an opportunity for Rory to return to his old firm has them pulling up stakes and moving to London.

Rory sets them up in a somewhat rundown but still stately manor house, a massive estate for just the four of them. He takes up at his old firm under the leadership of his boss Arthur (Michael Culkin, “The Good Liar”) and promises the world to his family – great schools for the kids, a new stable and training ring for Allison. So much of it seems too good to be true.

And it might be.

It’s not long before the cracks start to show. Rory is struggling at work, pushing for big splashy moves despite resistance from higher-ups. The family’s finances are in shambles – Allison even seeks out hiding places to stash money. Samantha is rebelling at her new school and Benjamin is struggling at his. Rory’s secretive and erratic behavior leaves Allison angry and exasperated; there’s an ominous energy that surrounds the house and the family as everything begins to crumble … and no one seems to have any idea how to set things right once again.

“The Nest” doesn’t always seem like it knows what it wants to be. The first half-hour reads as the first act of a horror movie, complete with spooky vibes and occasional hints at something sinister. But then, the actual scary stuff … doesn’t happen. Mysteriously opened doors and spooky dark hallways are mentioned or even seen, only to never be referenced again. It’s as though Durkin set out to deliberately avoid teasing out any of the threads he lays out; ideas and images are introduced and then promptly forgotten and/or ignored. It’s essentially a horror movie without the horror.

That isn’t to say that there’s nothing of merit here. There’s an interesting aesthetic here, a dark saturation that is certainly evocative. And there are some sharply-executed squirm-inducing moments of familial conflict that really cook. The slow disintegration is compellingly tough to watch. And the performances – particularly at the top – are excellent. But while all of those elements are certainly valuable, they can’t overcome the simple fact that there’s not all that much to the narrative. There’s just not enough story here, leading to a film that is both short yet almost-too-leisurely paced.

Again – no fault to the performers. Law is the perfect fit for this sort of big-talking hustler; he’s got charm to spare, but he’s unafraid to subvert that charm into something vaguely sleazy. Coon is a chain-smoking ball of malaise and mistrust, growing evermore disillusioned as she watches the house of cards slowly collapsing around her. The dynamic between the two of them is exceptional, a crackling chemistry that captures beautifully the attraction/revulsion foundation of this dysfunctional marriage. They’re great together, easily the best part of this flawed film.

On the supporting side, we have the kids. Roche does good work as the rebellious daughter, finding ways to project that blend of withering disdain and fierce affection unique to teenaged girls. Shotwell’s given a little less to work with, but he finds ways to bring forth big feelings in brief snapshots. The other supporting players generally fade into the background, but by design – this movie is about the central family first and foremost. The rest is window dressing, albeit well-crafted window dressing.

Movies like “The Nest” are a bit frustrating, because there are a lot of quality pieces here. Unfortunately, those pieces are left to function mostly on their own; the film lacks the central narrative that would serve as the structure on which they might hang. Strong performances and an interesting aesthetic are enough to keep the film from falling completely flat, but ultimately, there’s not a lot actually here, leaving “The Nest” to sit mostly empty.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 16 November 2020 10:29

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