When my wife and I got married, we moved into our first apartment together, and for the next nine years, we enjoyed that place as much as we enjoyed being husband and wife. The apartment had its problems — our landlady lived a floor below us, and she could be a handful — but for me, our home was synonymous with this new chapter of our lives and was therefore perfect.
But we eventually decided to stop renting and lucked out by finding a condo we could afford in an area of the city we liked. So we packed our stuff, excited for this next adventure, and got settled in. Then, for six months after, I proceeded to hate the place, convinced we had made a terrible decision and, worse, ruined our relationship. Everyone’s heard of buyers’ remorse, but this was different: I somehow became convinced that, because we’d left the apartment where we’d lived for the first blissful years of our marriage, we had somehow now cursed ourselves. It wasn’t that the new place was haunted, but because it had a different vibe — a different layout, a different way that the light came in through the windows — I was gripped with a certainty it would cause us to break up. None of this was rational, but I felt it intensely.
Thankfully, I was overreacting — we’ve been here five years now, and we’re fine — but I sometimes think about how a new home can quietly alter our emotional makeup without us always understanding it. That’s certainly the case for the characters in The Nest, the terrific follow-up film from Martha Marcy May Marlene writer-director Sean Durkin. It’s a haunted house film in which the house probably isn’t haunted. But simply by moving there, a seemingly happy family stops being happy. The house didn’t do it, but something about the move sure did.
The year is 1986 and we start in New York state, where Rory (Jude Law), a British entrepreneur, is married to horse-trainer Allison (Carrie Coon) and lives with their kids Sam (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell). They don’t seem all that remarkable or unusual of a family — Allison, who’s American, had Sam with a previous partner — and they exude the unfussed attitude of the comfortably well-off, complete with lots of warm hugs and playful teasing. But when Rory tells his wife that they’re moving to London for a business opportunity, her response is a “Go fuck yourself” that’s somewhere between shock, disappointment, disbelief and anger. Allison has been through this before with him many times, pulling up stakes to chase some new venture he swear will make them a lot of money. But Rory has his mind made up — “Things have dried up here for me,” he tells her — and so that’s that.
When next we see this family, they’re unloading boxes at their new house, which is actually a rundown but gorgeous old mansion out in the Surrey countryside. “Led Zeppelin stayed here!” the father tells his kids excitedly as they take in the high ceilings, spacious rooms, elegant staircases and secret passageways. Even Allison seems impressed, especially after Rory surprises her with a swanky fur coat. This new brokerage job he’s accepted at a firm that treats him like a superstar is finally the thing that’s going to make them insanely rich. Maybe this move won’t be so bad.
If The Nest (which opens in some theaters today and comes to VOD on November 17th) was a traditional horror movie, you’d guess what happens next. Turns out, there’s a ghost lurking in the house, and it torments the family in a way that thematically links up with their sins but also provides clues into who this ghost was when he was alive. But that isn’t what occurs in this film, which was inspired by Durkin’s own childhood moving between the States and the U.K. in the 1980s and ‘90s. “I experienced a stark difference in atmosphere between the two places that has long stayed with me,” he writes in The Nest’s press notes, and one of the film’s marvels is how he translates that ineffable feeling onto the screen with unsettling ambiguity.
It’s not simply that the Surrey estate is dimly lit and the skies often gray and gloomy. Very subtly, the movie’s characters — particularly Rory and Allison — seem to shift in this new environment. They’re not possessed by paranormal forces or under some satanic spell. They just start to realize all the ways they can’t stand one another.
I’ve seen The Nest twice now, and I still can’t entirely explain what “happens.” Best I can say is that, like with my anxiety about settling into a new place, a transformation occurs within the individual family members. Suddenly, Ben seems withdrawn and sad. Meanwhile, Sam grows sullen and teenager-y, locking herself in her room with school friends she doesn’t introduce to her parents. Rory is distant, relishing in his job in a posh downtown skyscraper, happy to finally be the master of the universe he’d always envisioned himself. As for Allison, she swears she’s fine, but Sam’s eye-rolling reaction indicates she knows her mom too well to buy that. Allison’s shift is less immediately apparent, but the mysteriously declining health of her prized horse suggests another kind of malady affecting the house.
A few months ago, I wrote about Law, talking about how his early promise in acclaimed performances, like in The Talented Mr. Ripley, was eventually tarnished by some later box-office duds and a general impression that maybe he wasn’t the megastar some had originally touted him as. Regardless, he’s managed a steady, solid career since, and The Nest is the sort of film that reminds you how fantastic he can be. As Ripley’s Dickie Greenleaf, he was a golden god — rich and young and handsome — but as Rory, he’s an aging charmer who has built his life around talking a good game and then not delivering. What Law does especially well is strip away Rory’s veneer of confidence and good looks, hinting at the ugly desperation and greed underneath. It’s a portrait of a middle-aged failure that’s not remotely sympathetic because Law constantly reminds us what a pretentious, name-dropping prick this guy is. Was Rory always such a heel? Or was it something about moving back to his homeland that stirred something inside him?
You could ask similar questions of all four members of the family — what happened to them? — and Durkin and his cast do an excellent job of leaving that a mystery but also, on some level, making their personal disintegration feel inevitable. Durkin applies the same trick he did in Martha Marcy May Marlene, letting stillness settle over scenes — almost as if the room is airless — so that we feel claustrophobic, even in such a big, empty mansion. The tension between Rory and Allison, sparked by her discovery that maybe they’re not doing as well financially as he led them to believe, spreads like a virus around the house. (Children always pick up the quiet discord going on between their parents.) And because they all live out in the middle of nowhere, they can’t get away from the growing feeling that, suddenly, this family isn’t well.
When I was still getting adjusted to my move, I talked to a friend, who had also moved recently and was going through a similar existential crisis. Searching for a way to describe her malaise, she finally said, “Nothing at my new grocery store is where it’s supposed to be,” and that’s exactly right. Whether it’s a trip across town or across the pond, we can be unmoored, at least temporarily, by our new environment.
It’s a terrible sensation, and it permeates The Nest. This family is living through a horror movie that’s all in their heads, or is it? Pretty soon, Durkin’s absorbing dispeace starts to unnerve us as well.
About halfway through the film, Allison becomes freaked out when, after closing up everything in their spooky house, one door suddenly comes open. She accuses her kids of playing a prank on her, but they swear they didn’t do anything, which only makes her more anxious. “What is happening?!” she screams. “You’re all strangers to me right now! All of you!”
She wishes she was in a typical haunted-house movie. At least there, you’d eventually figure out what specter is behind all the mayhem. In The Nest, there’s no resolution, no relief, no escape from the family you’re stuck with.