Law (who co-produced and championed the film) gives one of his greatest performances as Rory. The character feels like the sum total of every major role he’s played till now, from the Gatsby-like golden boy in the “The Talented Mr. Ripley” to the title character in the remake of “Alfie” to Pope Pius XIII on HBO’s “The Young Pope” (the ultimate salesman). There’s a touch of “Mad Men” hero Don Draper in here as well: Rory grew up working class to poor, and is great at using his looks and charisma to sell things; but he sucks at details, and he’s so obsessed with appearing prosperous that he neglects the mathematical facts of what things cost, and pulls his wife and kids into ill-advised gambles.
Burt Lancaster fans will appreciate the project’s spiritual kinship with Lancaster’s late cult classic “The Swimmer“—not just because of the “Mad Men” connection (that series’ writers often turned to John Cheever’s fiction for inspiration), but because of the script’s keen balance of direct factual observation (here is what the characters did, action by action, line by line) and plausibly-deniable allusions to mythology, legend, and scripture (you think about what things “mean,” in a larger sense, even though the film/story never footnotes things for you). Law’s performance is Lancaster-ish, or “Swimmer” adjacent, as well, in that it’s animated not just by a set of choices, but a philosophy, a vision of life—and perhaps also a self-inventory that connected the character of Rory to aspects of himself, as flattering or unflattering as the resulting realizations must have been.
Coon equals and in some ways exceeds Law here. It’s the more altogether impressive performance because she’s comparatively new to us (her breakthroughs were on HBO’s “The Leftovers” and the third season of FX’s “Fargo“). As Allison, she gives as performance as grounded, nervy, vulnerable, and technically flawless as any we’ve seen from more established actresses, and in a different mode from the roles that put her on critics’ and viewers’ radar.
Coon has four, maybe five scenes in “The Nest” where her work is so focused and simple (in the sense of being direct and unadorned, not crude or simplistic) that they could stand for the movie in its totality. The greatest is a dinner scene near the end of the film. Rory has cajoled and compelled Allison to accompany him as he and a coworker, Steve (a sturdy and affecting supporting performance by Adeel Akhtar), to help them win over clients who could bring a lot of money into their company. Rory, who’s wracked by financial instability and marital desperation at that point, tries way too hard, essentially giving a bad performance as Rory. He presents himself as a man of culture and taste who appreciates the finer things, but comes off as a yob cosplaying a sophisticate. Allison, who’s had enough of his delusions, can’t play along anymore, and lets her seething resentment of Rory escape in biting asides, like steam puffs from a kettle that’s about to shriek.