This surreal horror about being trapped at home hits its notes while missing needed subtext.
You can’t really think of a more tailor-made horror film for these days than “couple trapped at home with a monstrous kid and no one to help.” Seeing as lots of people are living that dream/nightmare currently, I was intrigued to see how Vivarium would make hay with the concept. While director Lorcan Finnegan executes the film with aptly surreal imagery, great settings and a talented cast, Vivarium never seems to dig deeper than the surface of its premise.
Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a middle class couple looking to cement their status by buying a home. While looking at suburban developments, they are offered a tour of Yonder, a neighborhood where all the houses are identical. Creeped out, they try to leave but find that every road they take leads them back to the same house.
Things get worse when mysterious shipments begin to arrive at their door…including one with an infant. Attached is a note: raise the child to be released.
One aspect of Vivarium that was impeccable was the setting. The visuals for the neighborhood really impress, with each house a surreal, Pythonesque oddity – so bland and ordinary that it stands out as uncanny. Each house is so prosaically suburban that it has its own small, fluffy cloud hanging over it. It looks like a sadistic Mary Poppins willed them all into being.
The music and sound work are also excellent, building tension even when the plot becomes slow and methodical.
I really enjoyed Eisenberg and Poots in the equally odd The Art of Self Defense. I was disappointed here; while Imogen Poots matches her delivery to the mood of the piece, Eisenberg felt consistently off. I wouldn’t say it was a bad performance, so much as the wrong performance, tonally. His portrayal of Tom veers more towards the mania he brought to Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman than the harrowed desperation of his character in Self Defense.
I really enjoyed Poots’ Gemma. She played the perfect middle ground of a rebellious captive and a sympathetic survivor. Where Tom is (somewhat understandably) monstrous in his treatment of their ward, Gemma shows her resentment while never becoming inhuman.
Close to Home.
A lot of the horror in Vivarium comes from its simulacrum of real life. Tom and Gemma’s relationship isn’t exactly healthy and can swing from tenderness to recrimination in a heartbeat. They feel like a real couple, with real issues, and that can cause real discomfort if you recognize some of their dysfunction in yourself.
The uncanny nature of their situation – looking to check off the middle class status boxes: partner, home, child – and the morbid counterfeit of suburbia they are forced to play-act parenthood in all point to a rather unsubtle dig at social norms.
Saying the Quiet Parts Out Loud.
My big gripe with Vivarium is that it doesn’t feel clever enough with its messages. The very first scene is a cuckoo forcing its way into another bird’s nest. It blatantly gives away the story, such that you feel like the film is less taking inspiration from a natural phenomenon than just dressing it up in people’s clothes.
Part of the reason why the plot feels so bald is that Finnegan hardly uses the analogy to smuggle in any bigger ideas. Besides the shade directed at insecure people clinging to prescribed social norms, there’s no apt metaphor being explored. What does the story about aliens using a very weird form of surrogate parenting supposed to teach us about ourselves? Besides “don’t meekly do what other people tell you”, not a whole hell of a lot.