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A Process of Subtraction: Sean Durkin on His Disquieting Family Drama, The Nest

The Nest

A man in a quiet suburban home makes a phone call. He stands by the window and holds the phone to his ear. The light on his face, the reflections from the window…. It’s morning. No one else is up.

This seemingly innocuous moment could lead to any number of things, but, in Sean Durkin’s The Nest, an early-dawn overseas call prompts a life-changing shift for Rory, played to the hilt by a frightfully self-possessed and seemingly effortless Jude Law, his wife Allison (a remarkably calculated Carrie Coon), and their two children, the adolescent Sam and prepubescent Benjamin, (Oona Roche and Charlie Shotwell respectively). On the morning in question, Rory, coffee cup in hand, wakes his wife with news: It’s time to move. Again. She does not take the pronouncement well at first, but the British Rory is steadfast. There’s nothing more for him in the States, and in a way, she owes him for the time they’ve spent there thus far. Allison’s misgivings erode, and a resigned concession sets in. It’ll be better for the family. 

What follows are a series of unmoorings and betrayals as a selfishly driven Rory decamps for his native England from the US, his wife and children soon following. The new home awaiting them, a palatial estate in Surrey, is magnificent but also strange, and soon the allure of living in a castle fades. The upheaval creates within the family, already fraying before the move, deeper, more insidious fissures. Like the house they find themselves ensconced in, each of their lives are full of untold secrets, misgivings, and shadows. 

For Durkin, the picture effects a return to feature narrative, and its release nearly nine years since his debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, brings with it the promising reminder that in the viral and media driven turmoil of the last year, rife with consequence for the cinematic form and its adherents, it is possible to make a quiet, foreboding, and ultimately powerful statement, free both of explosions and overt exposition. Of the time between his first feature and his most recent, speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Durkin says “It’s not as long as it seems, but still a good amount of time was spent in the writing. It was really four years altogether, of not only processing my own ideas, but going through significant life changes. I became a parent.”

That the film follows a trajectory not at all dissimilar from his own upbringing (growing up, his father, a commodities trader like Law’s Rory, moved Durkin’s family many times, including to Surrey), and that its fruition occurred following his own becoming a father, is not lost on Durkin. When asked if the overwhelming sense of status anxiety and class consciousness in this film and his first plays into how, as a director, he orients a constellation of characters both to each other and to himself, Durkin says, “For me, in every character, somewhere, even the most questionable and vile among them, there has to be something personal to find ground in, something close that you’ve known. There, that’s a seed to which you can imagine upon.“

Durkin’s vision lies somewhere between the plaintive and muted depictions of family life found in Woody Allen’s Interiors, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and the brutalist portrayals of Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda and Alan Clarke’s Elephant, along with the aforementioned genre classics of Dan Curtis’ Burnt Offerings, Sidney Furie’s The Entity, Peter Medak’s The Changeling and Michael Winner’s The Sentinel. For Durkin, there is little anxiety to such influences. “Initially, I was drawn to genre films, but I found myself less interested in the clear examples and more the raw elements of fear and anxiety, and then bringing them over into drama,” he says. “Because like it or not, life has all those elements. If you’re involved in a family situation, and need to confront someone about something they’ve done, some way in which you feel hurt, you are instantly riddled with fear, with anxiety over the prospect of it. Picking up on those feelings, realizing we associate them solely with genre narratives, makes it easy to see them for what they are, and then apply them to more realistic portrayals, as they are and should be. They fit because they are real.” 

Framed largely in deep focus, wide frames, and glacially paced in its select movements, The Nest possesses a similar visual style as Southcliffe, Durkin’s 2013 miniseries made for Channel 4 in the UK, which chronicles in parallel timeframes an inexplicable mass shooting spree and the trauma of the town’s recovery. The films were both photographed by Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul), but unlike the pure, stark realism of Southcliffe, The Nest signals an overt allegiance to slow-burn thrillers in all its facets — from the film’s title itself, its brooding score, to the boutique, 1980s B-picture lettering of its opening frames, a slowly encroaching push-in on a modest family home in New York — while at the same time staying rooted in the real, even when the irreal seems beckoning from the corners of the frame. From one house to another this family goes, and herein lies the trajectory of a clan on the run, a refusal to face the unseemly dissatisfaction underpinning them all, one from which they have mostly insulated themselves from acknowledging. 

“A lot of the process is subtraction for me,” says Durkin about his welcome aversion to  the dramatically obvious and underscored. “I’ll pull back and pull back and pull back, and in the final push of the script, it’s to a certain point. But it’s about making sure I only have in what I need, and that there are certain things that need to be understood, so it’s a constant struggle of trying to say enough and having something feel natural.”

“I was watching something the other day,” he continues, “and I won’t say what it was, but it was something I really liked. The writing was excellent throughout, but then the film suddenly gave me a scene that explained what had already happened in the scenes previous, and for me, that was something we already understood. We knew what it was, we didn’t need that information, and it shut me off. I recovered, I still really liked the movie, but I’m working against that. I find it through subtraction. As the writer and then as the director, you have to say, “Okay, I don’t believe that. They wouldn’t say that, because they already know it. So what can make this believably real?”

In The Nest, Rory will go to no small extent to get what he wants, including dishonesty. In one telling scene, accompanying her husband to a black-tie evening affair at the upper class mansion of Rory’s employer Arthur Davis (look no further than the casting of Candyman’s Michael Culkin in this role for further confirmation that you are watching a horror film), Allison realizes in the midst of a toast to their presence that Rory has deceived her as to his reasons for their recent emigration. On Coon’s face in this scene, the tell-tale awakening of suspicion and deduction is thinly masked behind a stoic gaze, a practiced chill and vacancy in her expression. What else has her husband misled her about? Can you ever truly trust or know someone you’ve built a life with, in a world of endless surprise and revelation? 

A countless number of permutations of this scene can be found in films of recent memory. But in Durkin’s picture, this moment does not serve to provide fodder for confrontation or catharsis in any further altercation between the spouses. All it does is solidify the empathic relation between one character’s plight and the outside viewer. It is solely experiential. The moment is not followed up upon, there is no payoff as it were. Allison does not demand an answer to Rory’s duplicity. She, as so many others in her situation would, simply files the moment away. This, where most cinema often allows us the surrogate opportunity to act out our own revanchist fantasies, our own wish fulfillments and heroic desires, is where Durkin’s film triumphs. For in reality, most will not say and do as they wish they could. Most, will simply bide their time and ruminate in anxious silence. 

Watching The Nest, one feels hurtled toward some imminent conclusion that in any other, less thoughtful narrative, would include unspeakable violence or tragedy. All the signs are there. And yet that violence does not come. There is a practiced level of restraint and patience at play, and such denial of any absolute closure, or definitive reckoning, holds, for Durkin, as one of two things — part of a more personalized outlook regarding realism, how the world doesn’t go according to any plans, and in turn a reactive viewpoint considering cinematic constructions and their fulfillments. Again, an extremely modern and current trope — the sort of tired, “set them up, knock them down” formulaic approach to narrative — has no place here. 

Rory’s portrayal is particularly difficult. He’s not just an ambitious person but a craven and unscrupulous one. He will steal from his friend. He will lie unabashedly before those who know the better truth. Such naked improbity makes the character extremely painful to watch and understand at times. And yet, there is no repellant quality to it. Rory is captivating, despite the fact that there is no greater strategem at play in his deceptions; he’s just trying to get ahead, whoever questions him — including his own family — be damned. “In any movie, there’s a lot of opportunity for judgement,” says Durkin, “but I really believe it’s just not the place of a writer or director to judge a character. When I see or read something judgmental, I shut off. The fact is, human beings are complex and interesting and not always good, not always making good decisions, and you can use that term ‘good’ loosely. I’m interested in humans who are flawed and operating within the lens they’ve been raised with, the lens through which they see the world and operate within comes from somewhere, it was given to them by a certain set of circumstances.” He pauses here, perhaps for emphasis. “Some people can’t stand Rory and others feel a deep, abiding pain for him,” he says, “But I feel filmmakers should create divergent reactions and not try to create that single, harmonious response, which so often seems the goal of certain kinds of movies.“

As The Nest unfolds, the family reacts differently to their situation. Allison begins to hear things in the house that aren’t there. Sam acts out by sneaking cigarettes and inviting raucous local kids over to trash the place. Benjamin is horrified by the expansive, cavernous space, its endless series of rooms, most of them dusty and long since vacated. The home represents something different to each of them, as does thehorse Rory buys for Allison, which she struggles to tame. The horse centers her in a way the house does not and cannot while also representing uncertainty.

“The horse becomes a central divergence in Rory and Allison’s outlook,” Durkin says, “But really it is a living being that Allison loves unconditionally, isn’t glamorous, and is simply a part of her life and her work. It’s hard work. For her it’s practical. A way of making a living. For Rory, it’s a status symbol. But it’s a way of life. If she can hide all the things that are wrong about the family, what they’re not talking about, then she can easily project her feeling into the horse, the horse’s plight, and express emotion over that.” 

As any child of divorce knows, Benjamin’s fearful response to the house is a clear sublimation of the terror and dread he feels existing inside his family itself. When he hides in an empty room while his sister and her friends party, Durkin says, “It’s because he’s afraid, but he’s afraid not so much of the house, but of not knowing where their world is headed. He’s confronted with the house and because of this knows he has nowhere to retreat to.”

Is the intimacy of family life inherently full of abject terror? “It’s possible,” he says. “Maybe. I’m not going for that direct response, but I do think the relationship could be made. The films that made the biggest impact on me were films with an inherent tension to them. Issues of communication and trust were a big part of my life and I definitely experienced some scary things in my childhood, things that were visceral and frightening, and film is really the only form that can capture human fear. I’m drawn to that fear, drawn to creating that as a human experience, and also the cinema of fear. The climax to a family conflict doesn’t have to involve an act of violence. That’s not usually what happens. I’m trying to do something that’s true to this family and this type of life rather than centering any resolution purely on incident. I am writing in as truthful way as I can find to watch the family dynamic unfold. I want to jump into those lives and know that the lives I’m picking up on have lived before, that they will continue living after I’m done with them. I want to imagine them before and after. The film, the book, the story, it’s just a piece of their greater narrative. You’re dropping in on a life, you can see a portion, but it can exist further on, after you’re done with it.”

 

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