“The Nest,” Reviewed: Jude Law Plays a Banker Who Buys Into Money’s Lies
Money talks, but few directors let it speak as clearly and as copiously as Sean Durkin does in his second feature, “The Nest,” which arrives on digital platforms on Tuesday. Durkin is keenly alert to its cold, hard, implacable tones, which run throughout the drama, dominating the action even in between the florid odes to wanting, getting, having, and spending that its human protagonists deftly and passionately deliver. The film is set expressly in the financial world in the mid-nineteen-eighties, in the same milieu as modern classics of the genre such as “Wall Street” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the age of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which unleashed a new age of financial speculation and manipulation.
“The Nest” is set in the U.S. and the U.K., for reasons that Durkin has said are autobiographical. The movie tells a story akin to that of his own childhood—at age eleven, in the early nineties, he moved with his family from England to New York, and the culture shock that he experienced is the spark of the movie. One of the merits of “The Nest” is its shift of the action from the child’s experiences—the boy, in the movie, is named Benjamin (and played by Charlie Shotwell)—to the child’s observations of his parents and, even more (although not explicitly), to what the grownup now understands of what was going on around him and outside his immediate purview at the time.
“The Nest” is the story of a family—Rory and Allison O’Hara (Jude Law and Carrie Coon), the teen-age Samantha (Oona Roche), and the child Benjamin—being torn apart by the furious ambitions and social aspirations of its paterfamilias. At the start of the action, Rory appears to be not-working in finance in New York City: he spends an inordinate amount of time languishing fretfully and frustratedly at home (where the radio talks of President Reagan and his quotas on European chocolates) and declares to his wife, a horse trainer and equestrian teacher, that he has a good opportunity in London to, as he puts it, head up a new division of a company where he used to work. Allison objects that it would be the family’s fourth move in ten years, but Rory, who’s British, isn’t happy in the U.S. and insists that the money would be too good to pass up.
Leaving for Britain ahead of his family, Rory arranges for them to live in grand style—he rents a huge and ancient house, nearly a castle, in Surrey, that’s on grounds large enough for Allison’s horse to have romping space and a stable, which Rory hires a contractor to build. But when the other three members of the family (and the horse) arrive, the isolated estate seems to spook them all (including the horse). But Rory, swaggering like the lord of the manor, feels his very being swelling to fill the estate’s expanses. He also swaggers through his office, where he’s hailed by his colleagues as the returning prodigal rainmaker. Rory’s ambitious approach to the business, conditioned by his time in the freewheeling environment of Wall Street, marks a shift within the company, Davis Trading, and is appreciated by its aged founder, Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin), and such younger, calmer associates as Steve (Adeel Akhtar), who admits with some embarrassment, when Rory speaks of mighty deals, that he’s working on Norwegian fish farms. (The corporate shift is sparked by the impending deregulation of British financial markets by Margaret Thatcher’s government—the so-called Big Bang of 1986.)
Both strangely and fascinatingly, “The Nest” is anchored in a half-dozen extended scenes that mark the lines of conflict with dialogue of admirable precision and ferocity, with a cinematic framework to match—yet these scenes set the rest of the drama in their shadows. With vaulting financial vision, Rory pitches Arthur on a scheme to merge the company with—actually, it turns out, to sell the company to—an American firm that’s looking to expand. (It’s a deal that, Rory claims, will make Arthur rich enough to retire—and will make Rory himself rich enough to live his dreams.) Yet there’s trouble in paradise: while Rory is strutting at work and at home, he’s also riotously overspending, as Allison learns when the contractor informs her that he’s stopping work on the stable because Rory’s check has bounced. Allison confronts Rory about it, at a dinner together in a fancy restaurant, and Durkin films the resulting clash about money in a remarkable extended take—filmed to place the couple at an oblique distance—that puts the dialogue itself, the facts and figures, in the foreground as relentlessly as a ledger book embossed on the screen.
For Durkin, the adamant facts of money blast away the lies that surround it, the deceptions of those who covet it overweeningly, the sham of those who treat it as a badge of honor, the foolishness of those who hope to be warmed by its chilly power. In the restaurant scene, which also sets the couple clearly amid other diners whose gaze conveys the threat of embarrassment, Allison shatters not only Rory’s façade of financial success but his façade of marital comity under the sheltering control of his patriarchal largesse. Rory’s financial deceit exposes the fraud of the couple’s relationship, and—with a melodramatic flair that’s as theatrically impressive as it is disconnected from the fabric of the story—Allison takes deft and bold action to show up that fraud in public.
“The Nest” sits at the edge of the private and the public. It displays the social manners of marriage, the expectations of a spouse (in this story, of wives—there are no female executives present in the film) to play the role of support staff at business-related parties and dinners. And it highlights the stories told about family life that lubricate business relations and provide a circular fantasy of happiness at home and success at work which depends on a vast yet rickety ideological framework of laws and mores, norms and assumptions. Yet the mighty societal scope that’s implied in the extended clashes of “The Nest” is unfortunately not within Durkin’s dramatic purview.
Though the political context behind the financial overreaches of the eighties is suggested in the film, it’s dropped in merely as calendar markings. “The Nest” is a political movie that renders its characters resolutely apolitical. The social ideology of the couple’s marriage, the assumptions of who makes the money and who takes on more of the domestic responsibilities, remains untouched throughout. The O’Hara family’s personal history, which the movie depicts as crucial to its arc (no spoilers), is dropped in at opportune moments to inform viewers trickily of what the characters themselves had in the foreground of their minds all along. Beside the movie’s obvious disdain for Rory’s excessive ambition, it offers a favorable vision of modest aspiration, whether in the financial field or in local trades and crafts. Yet it does so with no depth, no inwardness, no sense of the frustrations and the hungers that drive big needs and desires, whether among the rich or the poor; the movie moralizes rather than probes. The family members, though they may be rooted in Durkin’s experiences and memories, remain symbols, abstractions, ciphers; Durkin’s incisive vision of battles over money and disputes over business practices remains stronger than his sense of their intimate, personal, or psychological import. Durkin builds his discerning observations on a dramatic foundation that’s no less unchallenged, and no less rickety, than the social fictions on which it depends.