Friday, September 18, 2020

No Place Unlike Home

When I was seven my parents and I moved into a new apartment on the other side of town from the one where we'd lived since I was born. It was at first traumatic, as such changes always are when one is seven, but they quickly won me over by actually showing me the apartment, which was somewhat magical for a seven-year-old boy. I'd have a second room just for my toys! My bedroom had a wall of mirrors! The landlord, who lived on the first floor, had rabbits! Bunnies everywhere! And to top it all off I'd have a balcony! The latter was actually a fire escape, but to a lonely kid with a big imagination you can sense the possibilites. I'd been bought -- bring on the new place, I thought. This kid is ready for change, world!

Little did I know but soon enough would I find out that this change in our lives was surfing along the waves of their marital discord, and this exciting apartment within months would prove our little family unit's destruction. My most vivid memories of this place now, looking back, are of two things -- one, of a man knocking on the door telling us he'd just run over my dog; and two, of my father having his first massive seizure there, sitting in his favorite chair. 

My father found out he had epilepsy that night in the middle of a fight with my mother about an affair he was having -- he said everything went black, and he simply remembered none of it. I do. I remember my mother shielding my eyes as I was led downstairs past him, an ambulance lighting the walls and windows, my father frozen mannequin-like in that chair, his eyes rolled up into his head, his tongue stuck out. His seizures, when they came, always seemed like a joke he was playing, a funny face he was making, until not.

We only lived in that apartment for a few months but it's a space I've been wandering in my brain ever since -- I know its wood paneling and carpets, the peephole in the front door, as well as I do anyplace in my life. It's saturated with black meaning -- I remember it dark, unmoving, my father frozen in his chair and the wall of mirrors staring back at me as I tried, and failed, to sleep those few nights. Whether you believe in ghosts or not places really are haunted in this world, in their way -- I wonder whoever lives there now, when a board creaks, do they know it's me walking past?

The most vital and electric thing about Sean Durkin's new film The Nest, out in theaters today, is how profoundly it understands the ways a house can become a vessel for our inner traumas -- the way external spaces can come to define and explain what's churning inside of us. Reshaped in our images. A Monster House made out of you and me and Mom making three, our elbows and eyelashes splintering off under the extraordinary weight of just us -- no support beam can take it.

Things seem pretty fine when Rory (Jude Law) and Allison (Carrie Coon) pick up and carry their kids Ben and Samantha (Charlie Shotwell and Oona Roche) across the ocean, from Allison's hometown in smooth 80s suburbia to his side of the pond, jolly ol', nary a sun in sight. He's got big plans, bigger dreams, and promises so immense they get their own zipcode, starting with the stately manor he moves them into -- rent to own, a motto that will be everybody's undoing.

Once they're there the house, way too big for four or fourteen people, seems to offer nothing but questions without answers down its endless stone hallways -- this house stares back at them, incredulously. Nobody could belong here, but certainly not these folks, although they strive until their fingernails snap against its surfaces trying to get there. But like the twenty-foot wooden 16th century table that's trapped in the house's den, it's unmoved -- this house was there before them and they know, they all sense, it will be there long after. It makes no room for them, no accommodation.

And via its cold shoulder everything else begins to crumble -- this impossible place drips water into their cracks and works on splitting them open from the inside, one little shift after another. It becomes more evident that Rory isn't Samantha's natural father in this place -- he'll only pay for his biological son's fancy education, for one. Rifts become maws, everybody isolated to their separate wings, all while Rory chases the ghosts of the manor born around, noticing nothing in his panic to make this place his, to make it obey. To belong.

The Nest isn't as darkly unsettling as Durkin's former feature, 2011's cult fright Martha Marcy May Marlene, but he still knows his way around symphonizing an oppressive atmosphere and The Nest has that in spades. The film's gorgeous, with its heavy stone and dark woods, an idyllic autumnal dream -- the words "autumn" versus "fall" are actually absentmindedly debated at one point -- of fabrics and sconces and cozy sweaters that begin to strangle. It's stuffy but warm, like two still-satisfied moments before you realize the chimney's blocked. The horses are triumphant glorious and magical beasts, until they fall over.

The last act has some of the sweep of The Ice Storm -- of a family's separate threads knotting together into mountingly terrifying ways; tragedy burns behind every expensive candle. And if The Nest never quite reaches Ang Lee's lofty heights overall (and spoiler alert, it never quite does) it does have one thing as good as any of that going for it, and that's Carrie Coon. Marvelous Carrie Coon. At a certain point The Nest becomes her show and anybody who's ever watched her in anything before knows that's no slight pleasure -- watch Carrie Coon dance, and smoke, and scream, the movie! Uhh, gladly. Twice!


Anonymous said...

Outstanding writing. Whenever you get particularly personal in your reviews, the prose absolutely sings.

shaun said...

HARD AGREE -- that was beautifully written, and I can't wait to check out this film. So much of what you said resonates very hard. I revisit the trailer where I grew up and the home of my deceased grandparents -- the ones who loved me until they met the real me and quickly discarded me -- so often. It is amazing the sights, smells, and textures our mind will absorb.

Jason Adams said...

Oh thank you guys for the nice words!

I edited this bit down in the review because it was overly complicated when I was really trying to get to the actual "reviewing the movie" part but I'll add it here in the comments, like a special feature on a bluray: the landlord of this second-floor apartment we moved into didn't JUST have rabbits -- he'd built a system of wire tunnels around the exterior of the entire house that the rabbits would run around in. Like the house was inside of a giant hamster cage or some shit, but with big fluffy bunnies. In retrospect, as an adult, that seems totally fucking disgusting. But as a kid it was AN ACTUAL WONDERLAND.

shaun said...

OMG, that is insane. It is no wonder you remember this lodging so specifically/vividly!

Drew said...

Seriously, the beginning of this piece was absolutely beautiful. Maybe it's because I remember my own family's undoing that it struck so hard. Regardless, may be you should write your own stories.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon this review, looking in earnest for one worthy of the film/Carrie Coon’s performance. Congratulations, you’ve written the most insightful review of this film on the internet, and it’s not even close.

Would love to see a longer, essay form of this as well…

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon this review, looking in earnest for one worthy of the film/Carrie Coon’s performance. Congratulations, you’ve written the most insightful review of this film on the internet, and it’s not even close.

Would love to see a longer, essay form of this as well…