Sean Durkin’s second film is a masterpiece of mise-en-scene, opening with a beautifully and languorously paced prelude that introduces us to its main characters – Rory O’Hara, a stockbroker played by Jude Law, Allison O’Hara, a horse trainer played by Carrie Coon, and their children Sam and Ben, played by Oona Roche and Charlie Shotwell. These opening images largely refrain from story or characterisation, instead establishing the luxurious 80s as Durkin’s main backdrop and concern, as we move from one gorgeous vista to the next in the O’Hara’s home, situated in upstate New York. Scored to smooth jazz and a tinkling piano refrain that recalls some of the quieter moments of Kind of Blue, Durkin’s images could be take from a home catalogue, radiating such domestic bliss that it’s hard to imagine how any kind of crisis or conflict could emerge from such serene compositions. Since Durkin tends to keep his camera at a reserved distance, the characters’ voices are always slightly hushed by the time they reach us, absorbed into the brooding ambience of it all, making it even harder to imagine them anywhere other than the aspirational trajectory they seem to be following.
This serenity is associated with a certain glassiness that removes even the few close-ups to the remoteness of the middle distance. We first meet Rory looking through a picture window, and the house is full of picture windows, paving the way for a film where every second scene seems shot through glass. Windows here are the ultimate sign of status and the last circle of privilege, relegating the entire world to a cinematic distance and detachment. Durkin’s camera movements are so slow, stylised and deliberate that the screen itself often feels like a window, framing the characters and actions so serenely that, once again, it’s hard to image any kind of disruption or dislocation of this consummate mise-en-scene. Only Allison’s horses suggest some vestige of chaos, and yet they’re immediately domesticated and contained by being situated at the very epicentre of Durkin’s glassiest and most crystalline compositions.
In effect, then, the prelude to The Nest is like watching a billionaire imagining his own wealth as a cinematic mise-en-scene driven by space, silence and security. The only way to generate a crisis from that kind of setting is to depart from it, so it feels right when the film proper begins with Rory relocating his family from New York to London so that he can rejoin his own investment firm. This is partly a financial decision, since Rory recognises that, with the London market on the cusp of total deregulation, there’s no room left for the mid-tier services that his firm once provided. Instead, they have to go totally boutique or merge with a global conglomerate – and he suggests the latter to his old boss Arthur Davis, played by Michael Culkin, who he encourages to combine with an American firm for twenty-four-hour trading.
However, Rory’s motivation for moving from New York to England is also aesthetic – or, rather, his desire for further financial mobility manifests itself first and foremost as an aesthetic orientation. For while Rory could certainly make more money, he’s reached a point of wealth where space, silence and the hush of top-tier real estate is the most valuable capital for differentiating himself from his fellow millionaires. While we do spend time in his investment firm, most of the English scenes revolve around the cavernous mansion he rents for his family, which takes the glassiness of his hold New York home to a new level. Not only are the windows much larger here, but the interior of the mansion is dimly lit, meaning they’re the main source of light, overwhelming every room with stark shards of sky. These are no longer picture windows since they’re not offering or framing a scene, instead insisting on their own free-floating glassiness in the same way as the shiny partitions and open-plan design of Rory’s firm, which is almost entirely constructed of glassy surfaces and structures.
So glassy are these structures that glass quickly becomes an index of downward mobility, as Rory fails to live up to the financial and aesthetic ambitions he has set for himself. Shortly after he fails to execute the merger, he gazes numbly out of the windows of a train before any semblance of glassy distance is abruptly halted by the carriage plunging into a tunnel. In his final botched deal, he waxes lyrically about the theatre to his prospective clients, trying to restore the serene distance – the glassy detachment – that has started to dissipate from Durkin’s own mise-en-scene, but to no avail. The inability to command glass thus segues into the inability to command distance, culminating with a scene in which Rory makes contact with his mother, who lives in a housing estate, for the first time in decades, only to realise his wealth still hasn’t offered sufficient distance from the trauma of his impoverished childhood.
As a result, Law often seems to be channelling the anxious aspirations of The Talented Mr. Ripley here, albeit now imagining himself in Matt Damon’s role. The more frustrated Rory becomes, the more Durkin focues on the horse as the quilting-point of his glassy mise-en-scene – a symbol of phallic potency that initially orchestrates all the film’s glass around it, only to smash all those glassy surfaces when it unexpectedly dies. Since Rory is away when this happens, Allison has to bury the horse alone, and from this point onwards the new house, and the film itself, can no longer sustain the glassy jazz soundscape either, which is gradually ruptured by intrusions of 80s pop – first at a distance, and then closer, until Sam ushers in the final crisis by holding a party for local working-class youth at the mansion. The Gothic overtones of the house give way to Goth Rock, as the party kicks off with Garlands, the Cocteau Twin’s first album, and Allison flees an investment dinner to dance wildly to the Communards at a quasi-gay nightclub, leaving Rory to stumble home alone to find the slogan “pretty c—t” graffitied on his entrance hall as the New Wave soundtrack reaches its zenith.
During these scenes, the 80s gradually returns, as if repressed by the timeless displays of wealth that Rory initially imagines. For a moment it feels like this must segue the film into a full-blown financial or erotic thriller – and reveal something illicit in either Rory’s personal or professional life – since these twin genres emerged out of the 80s quest for social mobility that unfolds here. Instead, and quite interestingly, The Nest refrains from both types of triller, but never exactly returns to social realism either, instead positioning itself at the point of convergence between these two genres, both of which stemmed from the fantasies of wealthy Rory espouses. For all that Rory longs for increasingly more spacious dwellings from his family, he reaches a limit where the spaces he seeks start to feel discorrelated from normal lived experience, and are instead attuned to the dispersed market space of global trading, along with the hyperreal film style that 80s and 90s directors would use to evoke it. Call it a myth of origins for the financial-erotic thriller then – a film that’s never quite either, but that captures the context and matrix of both in a quite fascinating, alluring and seductive manner.