May 6, 2020 Vivarium (Movie Review)
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg star in Vivarium, a bleak study of suburbia. Lionsgate delivered the Thriller to Digital on March 24, 2020, and now it arrives on Blu-ray (plus Digital), as well as DVD, on Tuesday, May 12th.
Completely average, middle class any-couple Gemma (Poots: 28 Weeks Later 2007, Green Room 2015) and Tom (Eisenberg: Zombieland 2009, The Social Network 2010) are an elementary school teacher and “professional weirdo,” respectively. Not yet married, undecided about children, the pair decide to ogle some local real estate as they dream of purchasing their first home together.
This is how they encounter Martin (Jonathan Aris: The End of the F***ing World series, Dracula 2020) and the Yonder development, a tranquil suburbia of forever homes located “near enough and far enough.” But what should be all of their wishes brought to physical reality quickly turns into a surreal nightmare when the couple get lost in the maze of identical homes. Doomed to move into House #9, a surprise soon turns up on their new doorstep and the couple will find themselves officially trapped.
Clocking in at 98 minutes, Vivarium was directed by the exceptional Lorcan Finnegan (Foxes short 2012, Without Name 2016), and written by Finnegan with Garret Shanley (Foxes short 2012, Without Name 2016). Having already proven themselves with the inspiring Without Name, the pair step out of the woods, combining Sci-Fi, Horror and Mystery, to craft a surrealist Thriller that provides a unique study of suburban life. Utilizing the flawless cinematography of MacGregor (18 Seconds short 2008, The Mauritania Railway: Backbone of the Sahara documentary short 2018), along with visuals steeped in symbolism—particularly regarding the use of colors—Vivarium is a minimalist presentation with a entire neighborhood’s worth of commentary.
As the success of this quirky allegory rests heavily on the shoulders of Poots and Eisenberg, it’s a credit to the pair that the film succeeds so disturbingly. As Gemma, Poots flawlessly depicts the evolution of her character from an elementary school teacher who adores children to a bitter and resentful foster mother who can barely look her ward in the eyes. Her performance is nuanced, and yet she is still able to easily present her piece of the metaphorical puzzle to viewers. A joyless commentary, her role sees Poots pondering, “What is a mother?”
As Tom, Eisenberg literally digs his own grave with an obsession born of avoidance. Refusing to become involved with the young boy (Senan Jennings: Dave Allen at Peace TV movie 2018, Royally Ever After TV movie 2018) placed into his care, he refers to the child as “it” and leaves in the middle of meals to bury himself into a hole. Quite literally. For his part, Eisenberg depicts a man with a personality that slowly fades to gray as he is trapped, repeating the same routine over and over. It’s a smart role for the actor, but also not one that allows him to shine—in fact, his character’s purpose is to fade.
Then there is the divide between Tom and Gemma—but is it the boy or the drudgery? With their routine being the same day in and day out, they both begin to grow bored and irritable, and their relationship starts to gently fray. Tom accuses Gemma of trying to ‘mother’ the child, as though showing kindness and compassion is a fault. Soon, they are working against each other rather than together; victims of their homogenized new life.
Again, is this all the fault of the strange little boy who speaks in other people’s voices and has the stiffness and lack of affect that we have previously witnessed in another key character? Despite his youth, Jennings is fabulously creepy in the role, playing the Scream Queen and the voyeuristic shadow that lurks behind closed doors at night. And then he grows into an intense young man (Eanna Hardwicke: The Eclipse 2009, Normal People series), ready to usurp power from his forebears. Dark, brooding, still disturbingly affectless, Hardwicke adds his finesse into an already exceptional production.
While Vivarium is certainly full of intriguing visuals and purposeful color palettes, the true might of this film lies in its story. Fraught with intriguing commentary on envy, parenthood, suburbia, and much more, this is a film intended to inspire discussion and debate. Because of this, Vivarium is apt to be polarizing: some will be bored with the lack of action and blood spill, and some are likely to accuse the entire production of being pretentious. As the minimalist and conceptual approach to storytelling is intended as metaphor, this is a moviegoing experience that is going to appeal to those who ask more from a film than flashy visuals and frenetic movement.
So, ask yourself: Is cookie-cutter life perfection or will it make you crazy? If you are capable of finding happiness in the repetitive daily grind, are you an alien? Vivarium is bound to inspire more questions than answers, and, for this, Cryptic Rock gives the film 5 of 5 stars.