- The Nest
- Written and directed by Sean Durkin
- Starring Jude Law, Carrie Coon and Michael Culkin
- Classification R; 107 minutes
If it is possible for one actor alone to save 2020 – a big if, I realize – then maybe we can crown Jude Law as some kind of pandemic-era panacea. While the actor long ago abandoned pretenses of being a marquee leading man – he is far too live-wire, too unpredictable to anchor an action franchise or a straight-ahead rom-com – it is only in the past few years that the Brit has genuinely embraced his lot as the movie world’s most handsome wild card. Like Tom Hardy, except without the annoying voices.
If I had to pick a turning point in Law’s trajectory, it might be 2013′s Don Hemingway, a raucous bit of British gangster fetishism that relied entirely on the actor’s spittle-and-huff imitation of a criminal madman. From there, the actor has been enlivening productions both big (Captain Marvel) and small (Vox Lux), always injecting a welcome level of knowing danger to the proceedings, as if the whole acting game was the easiest thing in the world for him but, ah what the heck, he’ll give you a little show regardless.
By pure happenstance, Law’s two best projects since this career swerve arrive this week, within days of each other. This past Monday, HBO premiered its Sky TV co-production The Third Day, a folk-horror miniseries that lets Law play both the hero and the cad and has great fun urging the actor to lose his mind in the process. Depending on your tolerance for pagan symbolism and lots and lots of blood, your mileage on The Third Day may vary. But know that Law is thoroughly excellent as he wades through the madness.
On the more mainstream end of things, Friday marks the release of The Nest, an intense new film that pivots on a tremendous, teeth-gnashing performance from Law as a 1980s father whose aspirations of upward mobility threaten to destroy his life. As conceived by Canadian writer-director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), The Nest is excellently engineered domestic drama, with characters walking on just the right number of eggshells around each other until they crack wide open. (Blame Durkin’s choice of title for all the bird metaphors here.)
After moving his brood from shiny, happy America to dour, class-obsessed England, which he fled under unexplained but eventually intuited circumstances, Rory begins to sloppily build the life he’s always wanted. Or the one that he felt he deserved. He rents a cavernous country mansion (“Led Zeppelin recorded an album here!”), begins to spin wild deals at his commodities shop and further alienates his American wife Allison (Carrie Coon), whose suspicions that her husband is a fraud intensify with every poor excuse and bounced cheque.
Meanwhile, the pair’s two children, younger lad Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell) and teenage daughter Samantha (Oona Roche), struggle with their new social circumstances, leading to bad crowds for Samantha, isolation for Benjamin. If Rory cares about the plight of his family, he doesn’t make much of a show of it – it is all about climbing above his circumstances until he can see everyone below, begging him for a hand up, too.
Durkin’s material is icy, barbed stuff – I lost track of the number of chilly glares that Allison and Rory exchange – but the filmmaker isn’t as interested in building to some grand explosion of tension as he is in exploring the day-to-day disappointments we all carry with us. This requires something more difficult of Law and Coon than simple shouting matches. Any working actor can scream at the top of their lungs. It takes performers of a different calibre to convey the sometimes silent resentment and loathing that Allison and Rory direct at each other.
Which is why Law is so tremendous here. He gives Rory a certain charming sleaze but never lets the audience forget that he is a man of exceptional desperation. And in the typically excellent Coon (The Leftovers), Law finds a perfect dance partner for this tango of marital tension.
Yet while The Nest is an ideal home for the talents of its stars, Durkin does allow himself a little too much genre leeway. At one point, Rory and Allison’s new, seemingly never-ending estate gives off the air of a haunted house, and I wondered for two seconds too long whether Durkin was going to turn this into some kind of ghost story. The film’s climax, meanwhile, teases a tragedy that would be pure melodrama. I should be thankful that, in the end, Durkin doesn’t take his own bait. And I am. But mostly, I’m happy for Jude Law. May his 2021, and ours, be even better.
The Nest opens in theatres across Canada on Sept. 18
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