A still from the film The Nest

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There are questions at the center of The Nest: Why do we want more? When we work in service of our ambitions, who exactly are we trying to prove wrong? The new dramatic thriller is from Sean Durkin, whose last feature film was the intense cult thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene. Once again, he can be ruthless toward his characters, ridiculing them with one chilly observation after another. The movie is always fair, however, even when it uses our sense of tension and genre against us.

Durkin and Hungarian cinematographer Mátyás Erdély create a sense of unease within seconds. The camera focuses on a man looking out of his window, and he looks small in the frame, like a long-forgotten prisoner. This is Rory (Jude Law), an English businessman who lives in the New York suburbs with his wife Allison (Carrie Coon) and two children. Ennui does not begin to cover what motivates Rory—he is desperate to succeed, at least in the limited way he defines it, and he has a plan. Without much input from Allison or his children, he moves them back to London where he has a big business deal. He buys them a lavish mansion, puts the kids in the best schools, and gets invited to all the right parties. All this luxury proves to be little more than smoke and mirrors, and soon Rory struggles to preserve whatever veneer he can.

The Nest is set during the 1980s—we hear the radio squawk about the Reagan administration—so there is an interesting historical angle. Over the course of the film, whether it’s the surgical dialogue or thoughtful production details, Rory’s desire is much more primal than that. He wants to belong to capital S “Society,” giving his kids the opportunities he never had, because he still feels the sting of rejection from his youth. His desire is pathological, to the point where it is agonizing to watch him rationalize one bad choice after another, and his family is the casualty. This all culminates in an intense climax, one where Durkin heightens our expectation of everything going wrong. A simple image, like someone driving their car at night, carries terrible possibilities.

Another key element to the film is Rory and Allison’s marriage. They seem like a happy enough couple (making jokes, having sex when the kids are away) and then the deception starts to creep between them. They do not fully trust each other, and when that façade fades, their arguments have a cruel sting. Durkin suggests that spouses can always see right through each other, and harmony is almost like a shared lie in a marriage. Dismantling the institution would be unbearable, were it not for the terrific performances from Law and Coon. Their chemistry has an edge—they’re weary adults, not young lovers—and Allison, who is American, is far less amused by the stuffiness of the upper crust.

Every subplot serves as a metaphor for the rot that pervades this family. The eldest daughter is a teenager, and she is quick to lash out. The son is about 10 and he does not acclimate to English schools, so he becomes a husk of terror and raw instinct. But the most potent metaphor, the only that may be difficult to stomach for some viewers, is what happens to the horse that Allison trains throughout the film. This is her true source of happiness, as she feels kinship and comfort with the horse, and that arc resolves with a brutal cocktail of realism and the slightest suggestion of the supernatural.

The Nest is not a feel good film, the sort of thing that is easier to admire than like. Through the crisp imagery and specificity of language, however, it draws us into its all too recognizable web of self-deception. Some scenes, like when Rory attempts to impress a potential colleague by talking about theater, showcase textbook phoniness. Then there is the scene where Allison, finally fed up by it all, loses herself to throbbing music in a nightclub. We have been these characters before, in one way or another, and Durkin’s final mercy is to show what is possible when our deepest mistakes are finally acknowledged.

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The Nest plays Friday at select Virginia theaters and streams later this fall.