- Directed by Lorcan Finnegan
- Written by Garret Shanley
- Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots
- Classification R; 97 minutes
Like last week’s release of The Platform on Netflix, there is a disturbing timing-is-everything moment to the new movie Vivarium. As in: Is now the best time to watch a deeply dark comedy-horror movie about a nice young couple who are confined to their home? Or is now the absolute worst time to take in such a story?
Director Lorcan Finnegan likely doesn’t care one way or the other about timing, so intent is he on slathering his film with a coat of dread and anxiety thick enough to suffocate the sunniest of social distancers. From its opening minutes featuring a dead baby bird to its oh-God-nooooo conclusion pivoting on a dramatic device I’m going to call Chekhov’s Body Bag, Vivarium is an exercise in wringing dry the audience’s emotions until we’re nothing but husks. For some, that could be appreciatively cathartic right about now. Myself, I felt little other than a deep and nagging depression.
Which is not to say that Finnegan has made an incompetent or unworthy film. There is a complete, if viciously executed, vision on display here, and strong performances to match. The latter is critical, given that Vivarium is basically a two-hander, with Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg (reuniting after last year’s underrated The Art of Self-Defense) playing lovebirds desperate to own a home. Stumbling into the planned community of Yonder (slogan: “Quality Family Homes Forever”), the two take a tour of House No. 9, and promptly find themselves stuck in some sort of suburban hellscape.
The area’s streets loop around like an Escher painting, the sky’s clouds never change shape, and there is no neighbour in sight. Instead, all the couple have is their perfectly manicured two-storey home and a cardboard box, in which someone or something has deposited a baby boy. “Raise the child and be released” are the only instructions the two are given.
And so begins a 97-minute nightmare that seems intent on satirizing ... well, Finnegan’s aim is never made wholly clear. Obviously, Vivarium is a movie that hates the suburbs, though there’s nothing especially new about skewering anonymous community living as some dystopian nightmare – Tim Burton, for one, has been playing that game his entire career. As the child grows older – much faster than any human should – Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley get in some good digs at the anxieties of modern parenting, though this idea, too, feels like one they are only half-invested in exploring. Better to fill the screen with ominous flicks at a grand spooky mystery that never pays off.
Eisenberg and Poots know exactly how to mix desperation and resignation, especially as their characters’ bond is strained by the Twilight Zone-y circumstances. The actors make it so easy to root for them, although maybe it’s because we, too, want to get the hell out of Yonder as quickly as possible.
Your mileage on Vivarium may vary depending on how cooped up you currently feel and whether you like your suburban satire raw or burnt to a crisp. From my semi-quarantined perch, it feels like one very long, very overcooked joke – and I’ve choked on enough gags this past week and a half to last a lifetime.
Vivarium is available March 27 on Apple TV and on demand.
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