Note: This is a re-post of our Vivarium review from the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. The film is now available on demand and on Digital HD.
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.
Gemma and Tom’s situation continues to unravel. All their escape plans fail but someone is delivering boxes of food and supplies, meaning if there’s a way in, there has to be a way out. But they’re not even close to finding it when their next delivery box brings the biggest challenge yet: a baby boy, presentably human but utterly otherworldly in his biology and behavior. “Raise the boy and be released,” they’re told via the missive on the box.
Finnegan uses every tool at his disposal to make the mystery child an utter nightmare — he grows too fast, he’s outrageously needy, always hungry, rude and spiteful — and the filmmaker finds plenty of innovative ways to make him viscerally, instinctively repugnant and horrifying without hedging on the tropes of the creepy kid subgenre. The sound design is an especially effective highlight and you better get ready to wince like it’s nails on a chalkboard every time that creepy little monster opens his mouth.
The film’s first half thrives on a dry, barbed sense of humor, not just in the dialogue and performances, but with some outstanding laugh-out-loud visual gags (be sure to keep an eye on the art hanging in the housing units) and the film loses a bit of steam when it turns toward its bleaker, more punishing second half. That said, Finnegan makes good work escalating the dread, swapping laughs for gasps during surprising moments of cruelty. Vivarium leans hard on the tradition of absurdism, staging a suburbian ‘No Exit’ with moments of Kafkaesque horror that dig into the meeting point between cosmic and intimate terrors, from the slow exploration of the boy’s mysterious inhumanity to the existential dread of being stuck in a cycle you can’t control.
Aris is immediately the film’s obvious standout with his bug-eyed weirdo energy on full blast, and Eisenberg is well cast as Tom, who oscillates between relatable and unlikable as he struggles even more than Gemma to adapt to their new lifestyle, developing an aggressive streak along with some dangerous and inane obsessions to distract himself. But it’s Poots who really shines here, delivering a sometimes harrowing emotional marathon through love and happiness, fear and desperation, grief, rage, and all the little micro-emotions in between. Child actor Senan Jennings also deserves a shout-out as the school-aged version of the mystery boy, who is downright unnerving thanks to a jarring and finely-tuned physical performance.
It’s fair to say that Vivarium is a pretty on-the-nose metaphor about suburban soullessness and the corrosive effects of domestic anxiety — the film is not subtle, but Finnegan and Shanley skirt eye-roll territory, and often, that lack of subtlety is part of what makes Vivarium effective. Come for the striking set design and killer performances, stay for the immersive mystery, and leave with a crippling fear of children and nagging concerns about the universe’s cruel indifference.
Vivarium made its North American debut at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.