The Nest: Jude Law is unnerving in this arrestingly chilly five-star film

A superficially happy family is transformed in Sean Durkin’s impressive psychological drama

The Nest
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Director: Sean Durkin
Cert: 16
Genre: Drama
Starring: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Oona Roche, Charlie Shotwell
Running Time: 1 hr 47 mins

Arriving almost a decade after his debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, wowed audiences, the second film from Sean Durkin can’t quite match its predecessor’s terrifying recreation of coercive control – a sensation experienced by the heroine and audience alike – but it’s impressively, arrestingly chilly.

A psychological inversion of a home-invasion movie, in which the family within the walls become less familiar than any intruder, The Nest recalls Freud’s writings on the homely and unhomely, and how domesticity can imply the hidden and the unknown.

Jude Law’s unnerving, status-chasing patriarch certainly fits the bill.  With little consultation and less apparent motivation, the English-born Rory decides to uproot his American family – including horse-trainer wife Allison (Carrie Coon), son Ben (Charlie Shotwell) and teenage stepdaughter Sam (Oona Roche) – to a country pile across the Atlantic.

Rory’s argument about opportunities may be in keeping with the casino capitalism of the Thatcher years – the film is set in the mid-1980s – even if it swiftly becomes apparent those opportunities are illusory. Allison has a sense of foreboding before the move, but: “It’s not your job to worry; leave that to your husband,”advises her mother.

Slowly, the superficially happy family transforms – as if by some terrible alchemy – into a profoundly unhappy one. It’s Scenes from a Marriage with Children. Ben has trouble at his new school. Sam falls in with a partying crowd. Money becomes tighter and tighter. The horse seems distressed. The unnecessarily large house is increasingly unnerving; it always feels as if we are one creak or bump away from a classic haunted big house tale like The Turn of the Screw. Or one manic typing session away from The Shining.

Save for a wonderful bit of desperate digging by Allison, there are fewer emotional pyrotechnics than one might expect. More powerful and memorable are the lingering doubts and suspicions, such as Allison hiding money in an attic or Rory's overnight disappearances. A hellish business dinner in the city turns into a long, dark night. Jude Law channels swaggering disquiet, resembling both the tormentor and tormented of a Harold Pinter play.

Son of Saul cinematographer Mátyás Erdély typically keeps the camera at an alienating distance. Durkin's script is equally clinical.

In cinemas from August 27th

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic