Directed by Lorcan Finnegan.
Starring Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg and Jonathan Aris.
After an encounter with a strange estate agent, a young couple looking for the perfect home become trapped in a mysterious neighbourhood in which all the houses look identical.
Terror finds a home in the home in Vivarium, Irish filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan’s sophomore feature film: a striking, Kafkaesque thriller. For so long the horror genre had us believe that it was in the unfamiliar, the extraordinary and the otherworldly where the frights resided. But as much as a decrepit Gothic castle in the middle of nowhere should raise a few red flags, there’s something terribly disconcerting about the pristine blandness of suburbia.
From a story devised by Finnegan and Garret Shanley, Vivarium, which premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, takes pride in sourcing the macabre from the mundane. Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg play millennials Gemma and Tom, a charming couple who both lead very normal lives. She is a primary school teacher and he’s a gardener. Together, they’re on the hunt for the perfect home.
Things start to take an unnerving turn, however, when Martin (Aris), who easily passes as cinema’s most sinister estate agent, takes them on a property viewing at a recently-built housing estate called Yonder. In its uniformity—a pristine, Monopoly-style aesthetic complete with cartoon-like clouds and perfectly manicured lawns—Yonder immediately becomes ominous—a feeling compounded by Martin’s sudden, inexplicable disappearance.
The idyllic silence, welcome fizz and tasteless strawberries do little to settle the nerves as Gemma and Tom quickly realise they’re now trapped in a mint-coloured, unoccupied maze of nightmarish similarity and symmetry. Boxes of vacuum-packed food and long-life milk seemingly arrive out of nowhere, swiftly followed by a new born baby which soon grows into a creepy, screaming, voice-imitating 10-year-old.
Both confounding and engrossing, Vivarium straddles the space between lumbering, disquieting family drama and minimalist sci-fi: a striking amalgamation of a Twilight Zone storyline, an extended episode of Black Mirror and the carnage resulting from a bored teenager being let loose on The Sims. Like its small screen comparisons, unambiguous meaning often proves evasive in Finnegan’s film. However, the regimented design of Yonder’s labyrinthine, unremarkably quintessential home life taps into several intriguing ideas about relationships, parenting, identity and conformity as Gemma and Tom inadvertently fall into typical familial roles.
It’s an innovative, if somewhat overly equivocal vision that feels like it’s digging deep (in Tom’s case, quite literally) while simultaneously lacking any resonating feeling of profundity. In the end, it’s Vivarium‘s absorbing, hypnotic strangeness that wins over: a canny, surreal visual design that ultimately becomes the film’s most salient feature.
While it might not possess the pulsating thrills of a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster, in its quietly unravelling nightmare, Vivarium is something of an enticingly original hidden gem: the product of an exciting filmmaker’s visionary eye.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_Whatsthemotive for movie musings, puns and cereal chatter.