the nest is prestige mumblecore
jude law is a dilf, the virtues of shooting on film, and vibes
I’ve been thinking about Jude Law in The Nest since I first saw the film late last year or early this year, whenever it became available on streaming services. The first image we get of him is in this gorgeous maroon shirt and blue jeans. It’s a casual outfit, but on him, it’s far more fashionable than it has any right to look. Jude Law has always been beautiful—in The Talented Mr. Ripley, he’s almost too beautiful to look at directly. When he was younger, he had the kind face I didn’t expect to age well. You know? A man that pretty is destined for face-ruining plastic surgery. A man that beautiful almost always falls for the gravity of his own beauty, and is driven to quite extreme measures to preserve it, ultimately resulting in its destruction. It is what we expect from beautiful people. But Jude Law has mostly managed to avoid it, aging, not like a fine wine, but more like a piece of couture. In that you know there’s been some restoration, but it’s been done subtly, tastefully, making the age a part of the appeal. He’s vintage fuckable in this movie. It’s not pristine beauty. It’s the beauty of someone who’s moved through the world and knows just when and how you want to be held down and treated like a piece of a meat. But then after, he wants to talk about Proust or the Danish furniture he saw on his way to your apartment.
The film almost always insists upon catching him when he’s doing something seemingly unimportant. Making coffee. Shuffling hair. The smile in his eyes just after he looks up and catches the camera on him. There’s something boyish and playful in the way he wears the character of Rory O’Hara in this film. The way he switches from doting dad to smoldering scam artist. The way he shifts his weight from heel to heel makes you forget you’re watching a movie. It’s in the details, the throw-away little gestures that underpin so many of his choices with the character. The Jude Law we encounter in The Nest is all grown up. He’s settled into something about himself. When he’s moving through the world of the film, you just pause and say Goddamn, that’s a man.
The Nest, Sean Durkin’s second and newest film, opens with an ominous drone. A black screen gives way to an angular bungalow on a tree-lined street. Two cars in the garage, nothing flashy, just mundane suburbia. The drone, too, gives way to piano, woodwinds, some brass—subtle, foreboding music that will return later, but here, in our first encounter, feels strange and beautiful. There’s nothing obviously wrong here, but the music unnerves and sets the key for the rest of this eerie, striking film about a family unmade by bourgeois striving.
Jude Law and Carrie Coon play Rory and Allison O’Hara, who at the start of the film are living in the States where Allison gives riding lessons and manages a stable, and Rory looks after the house and the kids. They have two children, Sam, Allison’s daughter from an earlier relationship, and Ben, a son they share. We see Rory making them breakfast, getting Allison coffee, driving the kids to school. He seems to participate in the life they share, happily, readily. The impression, through the first five minutes of the film is one of a family in fine order.
Then there’s this scene in which Rory sits behind a big desk in a beautifully appointed home office with a demitasse of espresso. He gazes into soft afternoon light, and the look on his face is caught somewhere between outward contentment and the bruising inner life of someone not at all satisfied with their current state. Jude Law as Clarissa Dalloway or Edna Pontellier or Mrs. Ramsay. The smiles and bustle of the domestic life in which Rory seemed to be happily taking part just a few moments earlier have dropped away to reveal a stark alienation. The scene cuts to Allison behind her own desk at the stable engaged in the commerce of her trade. On the phone discussing details, taking payment for a lesson before we are treated to a scene in which she gives instruction. Carrie Coon in riding pants and a baseball cap, a lightweight chambray shirt in a washed-gray color. A laugh in her voice. The light against the ground like something falling through the air of a cathedral. The contrast to Rory’s situation could not be more brutal. You can feel the tension running through their lives like a plane of subduction.
Rory seizes upon or manufactures an opportunity to get back in the game so to speak, and arranges for the family to move—not for the first time, if Allison’s reaction to this news is any indication—to the UK where he will resume work as a commodities trader. Rory is a confidence man in the old sense of the word in which charisma operates as a kind of nerve gas. He’s always selling—to himself, to his clients, to his bosses, to his friends, to his family. When he’s trying to convince Allison to capitulate to the move, she barks at him, “Stop trying to sell me on it.” His eyes go slit-like, and he says, “I wouldn’t have to sell you on it if you had some vision, you’re so risk-averse.”
It’s a stunning bit of dialogue. Allison wants to have a real conversation rooted in real things. What the move might mean for their family and for them, in a real way. Logistics. The uprooting of the kids during the middle of a school year. Her own happiness and fulfillment at the stables where she works. Her horses. Their house. Money. The present, concrete reality of their lives will have to be disassembled and shipped across the ocean to a new place and for what? On the basis of what? She doubts him because she is accustomed to his charm, to that slick and glossy look in his eye. His offering to blow up their lives doesn’t read to Allison as an indicator that they’re going to be gaining something worthwhile on the other side. One senses in her reticence a real understanding of what is at risk. A whole history looms behind those words “Stop trying to sell me on it.”
But Rory’s got the scent of an opportunity, real or imagined. He’s tasted the leading edge of something. It’s clear he believes his own delusions. He does believe that this will clear the way to material comfort and safety. He reveals as much when he says to her You shouldn’t be working. As a way of convincing her to follow him. What’s clear to the viewer is that this is coming from a place of real thwarted masculine pride. We’ve seen how sullen he looked in that earlier moment when he was in the house alone. We’ve seen the pleasure Allison takes in her work, the way she handles herself out in the world. What he’s saying is I’m not happy about the way things are and I want to be the provider. There is an unstated again in there too. He doesn’t want a partnership with Allison. He wants to be the big man with all the money and all the control. And his way of acquiring it is to roll the dice and move them across the ocean from their American life to the British life we later come to know that he fled.
They move and things obviously go straight to hell. Their American furniture looks small and sad in the Thornfield Hall-esque house Rory rents for them in Surrey. Rory sets to work spending money he doesn’t really have. He gets Ben into a very expensive private school. He pays for a private stable to be built for Allison. He buys her the most glamorous fur coat I’ve seen since Carol. But it becomes clear, bit by bit, and then all at once that Rory is more concerned with appearances and the signifiers of the kind of life he never had. At one point, he decries the status-conscious, class-restricted traditionalism that of British society, and Allison airily reminds him that he seemed to be enjoying it fine enough at dinner earlier, all that talk about second apartments in the city. Things get worse when Allison discovers that Rory is bouncing checks all over town even while he’s putting up bigger and bigger boasts. He keeps saying I’ll pay it when I get my check. I have a big pay day coming. But the only person who believes that is Rory.
The big pay day Rory has in mind is predicated on the sale of the firm he’s working for. He’s presented the sale as a fait accompli to the owner. It’s a fatal miscalculation. He doesn’t see the owner’s eyes go cold, but the audience does. The levels at which the game is being played by Rory and the owner of the firm could not be more different, and there is such a sublime discomfort in watching it go down. The result is that the sale does not go through and Rory is left scrambling for a way to keep his game going. So, naturally, he betrays a friend in a way that amazes me not because it’s a surprise but because he doesn’t even pause in his calculation before doing it. For Rory must always keep the game going. That’s how it is with confidence men. They aren’t alive unless they have someone to hustle.
The Nest is visually stunning. Shot on film, it’s got such a rich and dynamic range in its shadows and darks, such sumptuous textures. Carrie Coon in a blue a dress at a mirror looking at Rory while she’s getting ready, the flash of Rory’s they cross over gravel into the house of a business partner, the sky shimmery just before dusk. The glare off the metal backing of the rearview window, the soft glow of lamplights and the sun on polished marble. The cinematography glides over all of the gorgeous objects and imbues each with a sense of realness. A sense that you could reach out and touch the thing lying on the desk. The grain catches everything, every little lilt and hitch of expression that plays across Coon’s face when Allison realizes she’s fallen into another one of Rory’s dreams. We see, too, the little tremor of rage at the corner of Jude Law’s mouth or the ambivalent shoulder roll Sam gives her mom when she asked to look after her little brother. There’s this perfect combination of estranging long shots and simmering close-ups. It’s like a perfectly modulated close third-person narration, the way it can manipulate our sense of tension by opening or closing psychic distance to the characters.
When we’re close, we’re not seeing people acting. We’re seeing people in the midst of an awkward and painful transition try to acclimate to a new life. Suddenly, we understand that Ben and Sam are often subjected to the whims of their parents. There’s chilling moment when Sam says to Ben something like, “haven’t you figured it out yet? Our mother is a liar.” The person bearing the brunt of the uprooting and changefulness of Rory’s nature is Allison who Sam perceives as letting it happen to them again and again. But this isn’t hamfisted or thrust on us. Instead, it bubbles out of a teenager’s surly mouth. A whole history communicated both in dialogue and in the all too familiar of her closed-off posture. She’s doing homework and wants to be left alone. The house is empty, full of shadows. Ben is being an annoying little brother. She wants him to scram so she can decompress. But he won’t. And so she says something to hurt him. To send him out. The dialogue works because we can see Sam scribbling idly. And because we can see Ben with his awkward boy’s legs hiked up on the chair. It’s a tableau familiar to anyone with siblings or cousins. The number of times I went sent out of a room just because my brother or cousins could send me away to do whatever it was that big kids did. The camera is steady. It’s as if we’ve caught them in a moment that wasn’t meant for us to see. And yet it gives a shape to the rest of the story. It works, basically, because it doesn’t feel scripted or like a scene. It feels like a moment.
Part of this, I’m convinced is the work of the medium. I love that most about film, the physicality of it. The irrevocable nature of it. Once something is committed to film, it is committed. So time on film has the feeling of time in lived, the way we experience it. Your whole attitude about what you’re doing has to change when you work on film. I started shooting 35mm this summer, and I was amazed and moved by the quality of the light you could get on film. But also, it made me think about composition quite carefully because I couldn’t just reel off five shots and pick the best one. You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve developed it. And when you start thinking about the cost of the film, the cost of the development, the labor of it. You are more patient. Or you’re not. If you have it to burn. There’s also this paradox, this freeing thing that happens with film, though. Because you can’t see what you’ve just shot. You can’t got back and scrub it over. You give yourself over to the moment. To the microtextures within every frame. The way a dress rustles or a shirt kind of hitches open. Because you can’t just hit backspace on the whole thing, those microtextures come to be the very point of the thing. What makes it alive. In one way, film is static. But in another, it’s so organic. So textural. In the way we live our lives. You had to take your time setting things up, finding the right angle. Testing the light, setting your exposure. I read that the cinematographer on The Nest, Mátyás Erdély, used KODAK VISION3 5219 500T, a 35mm film stock and shot it underexposed. That explains the brilliant oranges and yellows and reds. Those Tungsten film stocks love light and contrast. By shooting underexposed, you get such a beautiful, soft cast to everything. Because the grain is fine, the texture is akin to a matte patina. I love that about film in particular, the hard to describe vibration you get from encountering something analog. There is, too, the fact that the film is set in the 1980s, and Erdély discussed the fact that they wanted something that would feel contemporaneous with the setting. They wanted it to feel and look like something out of the 80s without becoming too much an overstated part of it.
It reminded me of what I loved so much when I first discovered Mumblecore movies. How it felt a little bit like intruding on someone else’s life. Like overhearing an intimate conversation on a subway platform or in a coffee shop. That perfect mix of vulnerability and precise character choices that felt like emergent properties from some inner, private life. But of course, amplified and polished and dressed up. In a way, The Nest is a kind of prestige mumblecore, about nothing and everything all at once. It commits to patient, steady exploration of its characters relationships that sometimes, yeah, gets indulgent and feels a little dry, but for the most part, it feels viscerally, emotionally alive. How can you not squirm in your seat when you watch Rory try and fail to force a sale of the company? Or the moment when Allison confronts him in an empty apartment he’s trying to buy. There she is standing in a fur coat, laughing at him. Confronting him with the truth and he still can’t help but to lie! To try to hedge! In another movie, that scene might have gotten polished until it was maybe a minute long. But Durkin lets it ride out. We watch in real time as Allison crosses the room in her coat, her heels striking hard. We watch her leave him standing there. And then we follow them into dinner where he’s still trying to spin it, and she pins him with one look. Such moments. Such human, awkward moments! At its best, Mumblecore shed all the bullshit and glamor of filmmaking and reveled in the human. Durkin manages to preserve that earnestness while bringing a level of beautiful, aesthetic intensity. The thing looks gorgeous, but inside it is a squirming, alive thing. I loved it for all the discomfort and pressure. The vibe was right. Vibes were on.
There are some films—particularly in the work of Andrew Haigh—that love light for its brights. For the intensities of its clarifying field. But then, there are films that take pleasure in the retreat of light and what it reveals. When we are first introduced to the house, we have a sense of its grand scale. It cocoons around the O’Hara family, and we see Allison staring up into its shadowy rafters. The kids run out through the sideyard and play in the sunshine, but Allison lingers in the house, watching them playing in the light while she stands in the hulking shadow of the place. One never fully sees the whole of the house. It is never entirely illuminated. There are lamp lights here or there, touches of orange and soft gold. But the whole shape of the place never illuminates. They are never fully at home in the house, and we feel their anxiety as it settles around them. Ben, the youngest of the clan, is scared of it. He turns on lights and stokes himself up to run through the shadowy halls of the place on his way to his room. I’ve been that kid. Afraid of the dark and all it might contain.
Obviously, part of the pleasure of watching The Nest is because it is so visually beautiful. But the beauty of it never strays too far from the physical realities of its characters. Carrie Coon goes on a bender in a slinky black dress after chewing Rory out about his lies. She dances in a club with abandon, blue light, black light, striking her ace, the slender curve of her exposed back. And then the ecstasy bursts. She is exhausted and in her car at home. The sun is coming up. And she stalks awkwardly across the lawn where she, with perfectly manicured nails, digs out a recently dug grave. It’s an overwhelming scene for all it represents, yes, but also because it’s viscerally upsetting to watch a person exert themselves on the brink of exhaustion.
The beauty of the film is not merely representational or shorthand or a metaphor. It’s not like in some movies you watch where things are beautiful but no one seems to know they’re beautiful. Everyone just so happens to be hot and they just so happen to have nice things and no one ever talks about it. In The Nest, Allison is beautiful and she knows that she is beautiful and she knows that her husband is beautiful and their children are beautiful and their house is beautiful. She knows that beautiful things cost money and cost other things and that it doesn’t all just come from nowhere.
There’s a way that this movie could have been another show about rich, beautiful people who have malaise and experience ennui in their lives and make mistakes. But Sean Durkin, writer and director, created a film in which its characters are aware of their fortune and their misfortune. Their material fates, so to speak. They are aware of it and this awareness drives them to make various choices, some good and some bad. Rory gambles because he wants more. He wants the ever-grander image in his mind to come true. He’s the boy who never grew up and never stopped dreaming. He is aware, at all times, of the gap between his present reality and what he wants. His solution is to fake it until he makes it. Allison is aware of this gap, too. Her solution is to work and to be happy with what they have. She doesn’t need more and more. She’s the one who stands between their family and total annihilation from Rory’s impulses. The film dramatizes this. And instead of just letting the beauty of the backdrop be inert. It becomes a participant. A pressure that puts the characters into increasingly complicated moral dilemmas.
I also can’t get over how physical this movie is. Not in a Marvel movie action sequence sort of way. But Jude Law’s body takes up a great deal of the focus. In the opening scene, he’s in the tightest burgundy shirt I’ve ever seen. His compact frame, the solidity of it. The dad jeans looking better than they have any right to. The sneakers. The way he plays soccer with Ben and a friend after school. Those opening scenes in which Jude Law is beautiful. Not in some abstract sense. But really beautiful, within the world of the movie, Rory O’Hara is hot. People want to fuck him. That is why he is so “good” at business. Is he good at his job? Probably not. That’s why he’s out of work at the start of the movie. That and a dwindling 1986 economy. But, he gets back in the game because people want to fuck him and when straight men want to fuck another man, they sublimate it by giving him lots of money and capital. They want some of his shine on them. And by shine, I mean, well, you know, sexual attention.
Carrie Coon in this movie is also hotter than the surface of the sun. She is so at ease in this physicality of this role. You believe her when she presses her face against her horse and breathes. Or when she’s dancing at the club or striding across a room. You believe that she exerts a gravitational pull because she does.
There are many reasons to watch The Nest. The patience of its storytelling. The beauty of its cinematography. The careful accretion of detail. The rhythm of its scenes. The chemistry of the actors. Carrie Coon. Jude Law’s face and body. But for me, it all comes down to the common factor, which is that the film feels natural. It doesn’t cut away from the awkward moments of life. We see difficult conversations, confrontations. The scenes linger at just the right time, letting discomfort play across Jude Law’s eyes. Or setting us up to watch Allison watch her family, the steely aloofness she feels. It captures, in seemingly breezy dialogue, the complicated nature of blended families and their ever-shifting alliances. All without trying too hard. Silence and shadow do most of the heavy-lifting.
It was nice to watch a film that seemed so invested in its characters and their inner lives. Nicer still was that those inner lives played out in complicated, interesting ways without being forced. The drama emerged from the characters and their circumstances. And the ultimate, heartbreaking scene, was one of real quiet power that stayed with me a long time. In the end, the film asks, who are we and what are we when we set all of our illusions aside and face up to what we’ve done. Who are we without all the artifice and self-mythologizing we do to get through the day?