Tuesday 7 April 2020

Vivarium (Lorcan Finnegan, 2019)

Three years on from his frustrating debut feature, director Lorcan Finnegan has returned with a greatly superior work in the form of Vivarium, a film which defies easy genre categorisation; while the label of sci-fi thriller might be close enough, there's also a healthy splash of horror thrown in.  Regardless of what genre(s) it may belong to, Vivarium is a creepy, unnerving and absorbing Twilight Zone-esque tale.  Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley have certainly taken some chances with their film, and it's nice to see such risks being rewarded here as, despite some obvious ambition, their previous collaboration Without Name fell flat on its face.  The excellent Vivarium is helped no end by fine performances from Imogen Poots (recently seen in the lacklustre second remake of Black Christmas) and Zombieland's Jesse Eisenberg, two endlessly watchable performers who are reunited here following their work together on last year's The Art of Self-Defense.

Gardener Tom (Eisenberg) and teacher Gemma (Poots) are a young couple keen on purchasing a starter home.  While taking an impromptu look at what's on the market, the couple encounter bizarre estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris, son of the great character actor Ben Aris), who persuades the couple to view a property on a new development called Yonder.  Martin shows the couple around house number 9 - which is situated on an eerily silent complex where every property is completely identical - then promptly vanishes before the tour is concluded.  Perturbed by this, Tom and Gemma get in their car to head home, only to find that every turning they make in the cookie-cutter streets takes them back to number 9.  After some arguing and numerous attempts at navigating a way out of the estate, the car runs out of fuel and the couple decide to spend the night in the show home.

The next day is filled with further efforts to leave, the failure of which prompts the desperate Tom to set fire to number 9; as they watch the home burn, Tom and Gemma fall asleep, and wake to find the house renewed and a brown package by the kerbside.  Gemma opens the box to find a baby boy and just one instruction: "raise the child and be released".  And raising the child is exactly what the couple proceed to do, although they are completely unenamoured with both the situation and The Boy (Senan Jennings), who grows to the size of a seven-year-old in just a few months and develops an uncanny knack for mimicking his guardians.  As apparently the only three people living in the whole of Yonder (regular food packages are delivered by an unseen hand), Tom and Gemma's mental health begins to suffer, and their stress levels aren't helped by their charge's unnerving traits, which include - but aren't limited to - screeching until the requisite amount of milk is poured on his cornflakes.  Using his work tools, Tom obsessively digs a deep hole in the garden in the hope of finding a way out, while The Boy continues to grow at an unnatural rate.

While Vivarium was no doubt conceived as a commentary on domesticity and parenthood, the timing of its release seems strangely apt, arriving as it does during a period when so much of the planet is in lockdown, with people confined to houses where, in effect, their worlds begin and end.  Obviously, Tom and Gemma's situation is a bit more extreme than the one most of us will face during the Coronavirus pandemic, but Vivarium's vision of a time when society doesn't exist beyond the confines of the family home is eerie for reasons which go way beyond the filmmakers' intentions; had it been released a year ago, this worryingly prescient film's reach would have been limited to its considerable atmosphere of dread.  However, judging the film solely on its merits and sidestepping the weltschmerz of the present time, this is a hugely engaging work, one that pulls off the impressive feat of locking us in with just three characters without ever feeling stagy.  As the film comes to a close, Finnegan - perhaps predictably - doesn't quite stick the landing, but Vivarium is nonetheless one of the most original movies you'll see this year.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net