Written and Directed by Sean Durkin | 107 min | Crave Plus
Do you remember, way back in 2011, there was a much-discussed indie picture about a young woman trying to deprogram herself from years spent with a cult, called Martha Marcy May Marlene? This is the filmmaker’s follow-up, coming nine years after the fact. In it, Sean Durkin delivers another picture with a masterful sense of creeping tone, but a lot more ambiguous in plot and theme.
It’s Reagan’s America, and British ex-pat Rory (Jude Law) and his American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon) are doing well enough to be considered upper middle class — remember that? — but Rory says he needs to take an opportunity in the UK, a job with a former boss, which will shoot them into the posh London stratosphere.
Off they go, rapidly installed in a sprawling wood-panelled pile in Surrey, the kids, teen Sam and tween Ben (Oona Roche and Charlie Shotwell), in fancy red-brick private schools, and Rory in an office in The City. Allison is an equestrian and they set out to build stables. She gets a new horse that she trains in hope of opening a riding school. It’s the picture of ’80s financial success.
But, not all is good with this family.
The surface cracks are mostly about money — Rory spending more than he makes, hoping to get a big score at work to pay for it all. Allison has her own cash that she controls and refuses to tell Rory where she keeps it. Not a lot of trust in this relationship.
The big old house is creepy as fuck, and only Rory seems to like it. Sam’s on to her mother’s having bought into Rory’s (who is her stepfather, as it happens) class-driven ambitions, and Sam sees through the bullshit. Meanwhile, Ben is miserable at his new school, but doesn’t want to tell anyone. It’s the ’80s so everyone smokes like a chimney, but rather than it looking sexy and dangerous, from 30+ years out it looks desperate and addictive, the symbol of a troubled culture of dependance.
Durkin prefers the gradual pull out and the even more gradual push in, the visual language of indie horror. But this isn’t a horror movie. If anything it’s a psychological thriller that would’ve crossed over into marital melodrama if Durkin’s grip on mood wasn’t so complete. Relentlessly, he guides us into this family’s heart of darkness with all the hallmarks of tragedy waiting somewhere in the last act. More than once I thought I might’ve been watching Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, only set about a decade later with a little less life wisdom and awkward comedy with the younger characters — and more’s the shame. Durkin’s film isn’t without humour, but it could use a little more light to leaven the gloom.
What it does, effortlessly, is tell a compelling, character-driven story, even while refusing to be upfront on what it’s really about.
Sure, Jude Law’s Rory is a cautionary tale about how ambition makes you look pretty ugly, and all the great ’80s pop on the soundtrack doesn’t hide The Nest‘s grim Me-Decade nihilism, but it’s Allison’s arc that I’ll be thinking of in the days to come. Carrie Coon makes a meal of her role as the woman who is carried along, maybe even carried away, by her husband’s status seeking — until she has enough — but what of her relationship with the horse, and what its fate means to her? Regret, loss of innocence, and the death of dreams?
Maybe one, maybe all of those, but the movie wants to keep us guessing. Durkin’s insistence on holding things back gives the production more power than it might deserve on paper, but it’s staying with me.