It’s difficult to talk about Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium without recognizing what’s going on in the world around it. This is an arthouse-adjacent horror film about a couple being trapped in a house and losing their grip on what reality is, something all-too appropriate for the COVID-19 outbreak. I watched two new streaming titles in the past week that have a lot in common with each other thematically, and I’ll start with the intense, insane and just-short-of-stellar Vivarium.
Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young house-hunting couple who is taken by a suspicious realtor to see a house in a seemingly idyllic housing development called Yonder. In Yonder, every house is identical and empty and unsettlingly suburban. After the realtor disappears, the couple can’t seem to find their way out of the housing development until it becomes clear they are trapped here, forced to raise a child under the promise that will ensure their freedom.
Vivarium is essentially a feature-length Twilight Zone episode. By which I mean this would have been a terrific 25-minute long short. It’s full of interesting ideas about gender roles and the American dream, and what all of that means. Gemma and Tom seem like your average millennial couple who aren’t totally sure of what they want their future to hold, or even if that includes each other. And we witness the standard conception of what a young couple ‘should’ want – the house and the family – forced upon them and as a result, Vivarium becomes a profoundly nerve-racking viewing experience.
Vivarium starts out weird and gets weirder, but it never truly commits to the surreal heights it initially aspires to. And while this could prove frustrating for viewers who demand answers that we never quite get about exactly what’s going on in the world of Yonder, there’s so much allegory and subtext that outlines the proceedings that it doesn’t really matter anyway. There’s a ton of style and an overwhelming sense of dread that makes this film impossible to look away from.
Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots reunite after co-starring in the recent The Art of Self-Defense. They have solid enough chemistry as a seemingly optimistic young couple that find themselves questioning their own relationship and what they mean to each other, as they find themselves trapped in this nightmarish suburban hellscape from which there is no escape. The film toys with the idea of this relationship crumbling from under itself and turning the two against each other, which would have been an interesting direction to go if Garret Shanley’s script decided to explore that concept fully, and not run away from the idea at the last moment.
In the end, we have the beginnings of some great ideas in Vivarium, but we don’t exactly get to see them explored in the way they deserve. It’s still totally worth seeing, especially now where nobody is certain what the future holds as we settle into our global new normal of the days running together and never leaving your house. Vivarium will fill you with dread and make you profoundly uncomfortable. You just may leave it wanting a bit more.