Set in the 1980s, Sean Durkin’s “The Nest” is an elegant, sneaky little drama; not a whole lot happens in it, but the actors’ faces make it fascinating. Rory (Jude Law) and Allison (Carrie Coon), living in American suburbia with their children in the early scenes, move back to his native England; he’s a commodities broker perpetually looking for his big break, and thinks he’ll find it there. The family, which includes teenage daughter Sam (Oone Roche) and 10-year-old Ben (Charlie Shotwell), settle uneasily into a palatial manor house; it’s quiet there, and they can’t quite fill the empty spaces.
Durkin previously directed the haunting cult drama “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and “The Nest” has a similar eerie quality — you keep waiting, through all the beautifully composed shots of the house and grounds and dimming light, for something awful to happen. Rory, we quickly learn, wasn’t honest with Allison about the circumstances of the move, or about their finances, and there’s a remarkable scene in which she realizes this: Durkin gives Coon a long close-up in which we see Allison’s face hardening, chilling. Their marriage soon becomes a stage on which resentments play out; about money, about Allison’s discomfort in her new country, about the kids, about the life they want to have.
There isn’t much here that hasn’t been explored in countless movies and novels before, but what makes “The Nest” utterly compelling is its front-row seat for two splendid performances. Law, entering his prime as a character actor — which he probably was all along, but those golden good looks in his youth got in the way — makes Rory both faintly slimy and touchingly vulnerable. (Asked what he does for a living, he answers, “I pretend I’m rich.”) And Coon, who resembles Cate Blanchett here in both facial features and talent, gives a simmering fire of a performance. Allison smokes ferociously, like she’s trying to prove a point to the cigarette, and gazes at her husband like he’s a mouse caught in a trap. You may not sympathize much with these people, but you’ll have a hard time looking away.