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Vivarium

Released 2020. Director: Lorcan Finnegan

BUYING A HOUSE IS A VERY STRESSFUL EXPERIENCE, AS ANYONE who has been through the process knows. Still, no matter how taxing and painful, nothing compares to what goes on in Vivarium, a spooky thriller that attempts to deal with a lot more than starting a family in a nice little house somewhere.

This nightmare begins when young couple Gemma and Tom step into a real estate office, casually looking at the display models with absolutely no intention of commitment when sales agent Martin insists on showing them the real thing.

And so they drive to a new housing estate called Yonder, which is, in Martin’s cryptic description, near enough and far enough. The estate consists of rows and rows of neatly laid-out identical houses in a basic box design, all painted in a light green shade, like a rejected design draft from a Tim Burton movie set.

They arrive at No.9, as Martin welcomes the couple in a creepily enthusiastic manner and takes them on a guided tour of the home designed for a small family. There’s the living room, kitchen and dining room downstairs, bedrooms and bathroom upstairs, all fully furnished, ready to move in. And who doesn’t want a backyard, complete with clothesline and plastic deck chairs. There’s even artificial turf in the front lawn. What more could you ask for?

As Gemma and Tom wander through the house, Martin has disappeared without a word. So far, so strange. But it gets weirder, as the couple drive around the labyrinthine estate searching for an exit, every road somehow takes them back to the same house. Even the clouds and the sky look artificial.

They are now the sole occupants in a maze of identical houses with no means of escape. Oh, of course, there’s no phone or Internet service. But a box of food and basic supplies always appears as if by magic. One of the boxes contains a baby, with an ominous note “Raise the child and you’ll be released.”

A brand-new home and a healthy baby, the envy of all couples – a dream come true? Fast-forward some 90 days and the baby has grown to look like an 8-year-old. In the morning the boy flings open the bedroom door and screams at Gemma and Tom like an alarm clock. He screeches again when Gemma is late with his breakfast. The little demon’s talent is mimicking the two adults and he’s eerily good at that. He runs around the house amusing himself or sits transfixed in front of the TV showing only hypnotic patterns while Gemma and Tom, exhausted and bewildered, try to get on with their monotonous existence, waiting for the day they could leave all this behind. Each day drags on without an end in sight.

The pervading mood is surreal and hallucinatory; the narrative defies logic. If you have a taste for the bizarre and inexplicable, this is right up there. Vivarium plays like a forgotten episode of the Twilight Zone. Except, unlike the seminal TV series, which always sums up each story and leave you with a moral, a warning or a thought, Vivarium leaves you in the dark.

The life path many couples take in settling into a home on a street, having a baby and spending their lives raising a small person is an obvious and easy target to mock. Turning the situation into a literal trap is none too subtle either. The couple start to disagree as Tom literally spends his day digging a hole for escape. The man toils away in his ‘work’ until it kills him, while the woman fights her maternal instincts in handling a child she feeds and clothes.

Garret Shanley’s screenplay presents home ownership and parenting as a horror story. The argument against suburbia is way obvious. Problem is there isn’t any compelling reasoning for its case. There are people who scoff at suburban family life as soulless and bland and the story and aesthetics in Vivarium certainly reflect that in spades. But the movie doesn’t say why, not even in an oblique sci-fi or Twilight Zone way.

Gemma and Tom, played by Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg, are essentially reactionary lab rats, their characters written without much in terms of shade and texture. Tom’s increasing despair turns him into the figure of a distant husband/father, whilst Gemma is by comparison slightly more sympathetic.

The kid, now a grown man, is still a disturbing presence with no good will towards his ‘parents’. Never given a name, his true function is revealed in the final scene. The child is raised but Gemma and Tom are not “released” in the way they expected.

The question remains as to who or what power is behind this. If this is indeed a vivarium, someone must be watching. Could it be us? You, me, every person watching this movie, staring at a bad dream that is being lived every day around us – if this is indeed the filmmakers’ intention.

As an allegory the central idea is under-developed and unsubtly presented, but Vivarium manages to maintain a cynical and nihilistic vision with suspense and moments of gripping mortal dread.


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