Producers: Ed Guiney, Derrin Schlesinger, Rose Garnett, Sean Durkin, Amy Jackson and Christina Piovesan   Director: Sean Durkin   Screenplay: Sean Durkin   Cast: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Charlie Shotwell, Oona Roche, Adeel Akhtar, Wendy Crewson, Anne Reid, Michael Culkin and James Nelson-Joyce   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: C-

Perhaps Sean Durkin intends his first film in nearly a decade as a rebuke to those who found the fractured style of his debut, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (2011) an impediment.  “The Nest” certainly tells its story of a dysfunctional family in relatively straightforward style, proving that the writer-director doesn’t need to depend on narrative tricks involving shifts of time and perspective.  Unfortunately, the story he tells isn’t all that compelling.

The protagonist is Rory O’Hara (Jude Law), a highly successful dealmaker in a New York financial firm in the 1980s.  He has built an apparently good life with his wife Allison (Carrie Coon), an accomplished horsewoman who gives riding lessons on the side, and their children Sam (Oona Roche) and Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell).  When Rory tells Allison that he’s been contacted by his erstwhile London employer Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin) to return to his firm, Allison is not thrilled with the idea of relocating abroad, but Rory assures her it’s a great opportunity that will mean much more money, so she reluctantly agrees to uproot the family. 

In England, Rory is welcomed back by Davis as a prospective hot-shot, and he begins aggressively trying to arrange big deals alongside his old pal Steve (Adeel Akhtar).  He also decides to show off his status by buying a huge estate outside the city for the family, and promises to build a stable and riding academy on the grounds for Allison, even buying an expensive horse for her, while enrolling the children in posh schools.

Things do not, however, go well.  Rory’s brash, glad-handing approach does not go over well among British investors, and eventually even Steve finds him detrimental to his prospects.  Davis refuses to go along with one of his biggest schemes, which involves merging the firm with a larger one.   It’s not long before Rory starts having financial problems.  Eventually he’ll have to consider selling the estate in favor of an apartment in town, but not before the stable builders stop their work because he’s unable to pay them.  And Allison’s horse collapses and dies.

That event reflects the heavy toll Rory’s failures are taking on the family front–one might say, to be a bit cruel about it, that from this point the screenplay keeps beating a dead horse. Allison becomes increasingly frosty, especially after she finds out accidentally that Davis didn’t ask Rory to return—it was her husband who sought the London job.  (That scene, set at an office party, gives Coon the opportunity for one of her more nuanced moments, and she seizes on it.)  To make money, she even takes a job working on a nearby farm.  The children run into problems as well: Benjamin grows more and more withdrawn, and Sam takes up with a problematic crowd.  Even Rory’s attempt to reconnect with his mother (Anne Reid, with whom he also appeared in “Retaliation”) goes very awkwardly.

The climax comes on a fraught night when Rory and Allison attend a business dinner with Steve and some prospective investors, where his bragging goes overboard and her bitterness pours out.  She eventually leaves for a bar, and he’s forced to take a cab back home, pouring out his misery to a driver (James Nelson-Joyce) who eventually tosses him out on the street, doubtful he’ll be able to pay the fare.  Meanwhile Sam is hosting a drug-fueled party back at the house, forcing Benjamin to hide in his room.

When Rory finally gets home, he finds his family deeply depressed and eating breakfast—and in his usual, crassly self-confident way, promises that things will get better.  It’s the last in a series of meals that punctuate the action, each more doleful than the last.  (The tactic might recall the famous breakfast montage in “Citizen Kane,” which was brilliant in its brevity while here the prolongation diminishes the impact of the motif.) It’s also proof that Rory lacks the slightest gift for genuine introspection.

Presumably Durkin intends this sad tale as a commentary on the crudely ultra-capitalist mentality that characterized the Reagan-Thatcher era of conspicuous consumption, but if so it doesn’t register.  It might want to have wider resonance, but comes across as little more than a domestic soap opera focusing on a family it’s impossible to care about—an episode of lifestyles of the rich and fatuous. A modern-day “Death of a Salesman” it’s not.

The best performances here are some of the smaller ones–Reid and Culkin are superb, for instance.  Coon has some strong moments, but overall she can’t make Allison terribly appealing.  Law is even less successful; he never convinces us that this scrawny, high-strung guy was a spectacular Wall Street high-roller.  Shotwell and Roche are okay, but neither makes a particularly strong impression.  The technical credits—Mátyás Erdély’s cinematography, James Price’s production design, Matthew Hannam’s editing—are all on a high level, and Richard Reed Parry’s score fills the bill, but that’s just window-dressing for a narrative that’s rarely emotionally involving.

Durkin’s admirers, who praised his first film beyond anything it actually deserved, may find deep levels to this one too, but if you look at it objectively, you might find there’s not much there besides the obvious.