Sometimes, nature is a bitch. It’s not evil, it just is — you can’t call a lion an asshole for eating that gazelle and a parasite isn’t exacting some cruel vengeance against its host, but the predator’s lack of moral culpability doesn’t make the food chain any less painful for the prey. Lorcan Finnegan‘s sophomore feature Vivarium is all about the ravages of life cycles, natural and man-made, from the intimate perspective of a couple experiencing the peaks and valleys of the 21st Century human life cycle in fast-forward, while literally trapped in a suburban nightmare.
Vivarium begins by rolling its credits out over an extreme close-up on a pair of baby birds, writhing and wriggling in their nest; fleshy, feeble, and unsightly little creatures, raw and unformed. Then we meet Gemma (Imogen Poots), a grade-school teacher breezily leading her students in a performative exercise, before she wanders out at the end of the day and finds one of the kids standing over the corpses of the baby birds, lying unmoving in the grass. The kid is heartbroken for the chicks and wants to know what happened — perhaps it was a cuckoo who needed the nest for its own, Gemma explains, consoling the girl that “it’s not always bad.” She’s about to find out how wrong she is.
Looking for a nest of their own, Gemma and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) set out on a house hunt, stopping by the office for a new housing development called Yonder. Promising a “forever” home in a vague destination that’s “near enough and far enough” (yikes,) the absurdly unusual real-estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris, absolutely chewing it up with alarming bizarre tics) promises. You’ll be practically yelling at the screen for the young couple to run, but they agree to tour the estate despite being utterly bemused by Martin’s oddball pitch. A short drive later, Tom and Gemma walk into house No. 9, a nauseous minty green box in an endless row of identical units.
Finnegan wastes no time getting to the weird stuff. After a brief and equally unnerving tour from Martin, the pair realize their agent has disappeared, and worse, no matter how far they drive, no matter what turn they take, they always end up back at house No. 9. The set-up has a distinctly Twilight Zone flavor, and while, like most Twilight Zone riffs, Vivarium‘s feature-length eventually starts pulling at the threads of the compelling concept, Finnegan and co-writer Garret Shanley make good use of the core concept, with a nicely self-contained examination of the pitfalls of prescribed lifestyles and the expectations of the white-picket-fence ideal. In many ways, that contained feeling would make for a stellar stage play, but Finnegan brings a cinematic approach to the material, embracing an otherworldly blandness and disquieting almost-perfection. All enriched by a wonderful undercurrent of weirdness.