Writer-director Sean Durkin makes movies that feint toward horror but then sucker-punch you with psychological realism. The catch is he’s made only two of them. Durkin’s unnerving 2011 debut, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” was about a woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who joins a commune that we slowly realize is a Manson-esque cult. Nine years later comes his second film: “The Nest,” which is in danger of being market-positioned as a house-of-terrors shriekathon. It’s something rather more subtle.
The cast is aces. Jude Law plays Rory O’Hara (pronounced “O’hah-ra”), a British financial trader living in the United States with his “beautiful, blonde American wife” Allison (Carrie Coon of “The Leftovers”) and their children, young Ben (Charlie Shotwell) and teenage daughter Sam (Oona Roche) from Allison’s previous marriage. Their life seems perfect, which makes Rory’s insistence on moving back to London and the firm run by his aging mentor, Arthur (Michael Culkin), seem curious. He installs his family in a glorious, gloomy tumble-down manse in Surrey, with fields for Allison’s beloved horse and a soccer pitch for Ben. The house has a history. So, it turns out, does Rory.
Early on we peg the time-period as the early ’80s — the Psychedelic Furs on Sam’s turntable, Ronald Reagan pitching go-go capitalism on TV — and that becomes a clue to Rory’s (rhymes with Tory) avidity. While the kids try to fit in at their new schools and Allison busies herself with building a stable, we see the husband’s glass-and-steel office ambitions charge ahead faster than their bank account. On one level, “The Nest” is about how his wife, his children, and the audience come to realize at roughly the same time that charming Rory is an empty shell of a human being. On another it’s how a house can soak up a family’s malaise and reflect it right back at them.
“The Nest” introduces phenomena that remain stubbornly unexplained: a door that refuses to stay locked, footsteps from people who aren’t there. More disturbing is the blind panic with which Allison’s horse, Richmond, greets his new home and the animal’s awful, unexpected fate. These events run concurrent to the husband’s desperate attempts to set up the Big Deal That Will Fix Everything and his children’s gradual estrangement from the house and their parents.
Durkin has a filmmaking style of indirect direction, one that leans on certain ’70s suspense-movie tricks: slow zooms into figures standing at windows, eerie soundtrack drones. But the performances are bold: Law making the grand, obvious gestures of a poor kid pretending to be rich and Coon turning Allison’s unhappiness into open rebellion in a restaurant scene that leads to a delirious solo night on the town.
You may want more. “The Nest,” which is debuting theatrically now before arriving on VOD in November, is the kind of movie that slips between genres in a way designed to frustrate audiences looking for the certainty of a good time. It ends with the family dynamic looking the same but utterly rearranged, and if you want a bit more blood with your catharsis, I guess I can’t blame you. But the thing I like about this movie is the question it leaves tantalizingly unresolved to the end. Is the house haunting the family? Or is the family haunting the house?
Written and directed by Sean Durkin. Starring Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Oona Roche, Charlie Shotwell. At Kendall Square, suburbs. 107 minutes. R (language throughout, some sexuality, nudity, teen partying).