‘Sharp, bizarre and bracing’ — Review of Vivarium - whynow

Lorcan Finnegan’s sophomore feature is a burbstricken Twilight Zone. A young couple trapped in a chocolate box house contend with a disturbing child and a looping maze. With bizarro logic, the film unfolds like a distasteful joke or a bad dream.


When I first pitched a review of Vivarium back in January, I imagined I’d be writing up an atmospheric, indie thriller that skewered the housing crisis and satirised millenials trying to get on the property ladder. But who could have foreseen the film’s reception so wildly altered by its arrival amidst a global pandemic?

Now this story of a couple who, through mysterious circumstances, are unable to leave their sterile, scrubs-coloured house, reverberates with an entirely different crisis. Through eerie coincidence, it cuts rather close to the bone; for those willing to brave it, this comic horror parable offers as sharp, bizarre, and bracing pleasures as sucking on a lemon.

Through eerie coincidence, it cuts rather close to the bone; for those willing to brave it, this comic horror parable offers as sharp, bizarre, and bracing pleasures as sucking on a lemon

Souring the mood from the opening credits is the image of predatory cuckoos dislodging baby birds from their nest. Thus ‘nesting’ and the pedestrian cruelty of nature is at the forefront of our minds as we meet Gemma (Imogen Poots), a nursery school teacher instructing her class to mime being the wind through the trees. She loves her job and these kids.

Her boyfriend Tom seems nice enough, a down-to-earth gardener, playful and optimistic — but he’s played by Jesse Eisenberg, who seems to be perennially cast as an a**hole (see The Social Network, for instance). There’s a spikiness to him — real or imagined — even when he’s being sweet.

They pay a visit to an estate agent’s and are greeted by Martin (Jonathan Aris). He’s a stiff and glassy-eyed geek-cum-Mormon in a short-sleeved shirt and too-high trousers. He tips the dialogue into absurdist Yorgos Lanthimos territory.

Wooden Martin may be, but he’s compelling. Whisking the young couple off, the unlikely trio view the whimsically named Yonder — a copy-paste suburban development, manicured, uncanny and complete with Toy Town, cotton-wool clouds that hang unmoving overhead.

Driving past row upon row of digitalised, boxy houses, but — somehow — all roads lead back to Number Nine

Pulling up to Number Nine, Martin announces, ‘Number nine is not a starter home. This house is forever. A perfect environment for a young family.’ Sales speak on the wrong side of sinister — especially when Martin slips away, leaving the couple stranded.

Tom and Gemma try to check out too, driving past row upon row of digitalised, boxy houses, but — somehow — all roads lead back to Number Nine. More troubling than being trapped in a labyrinth, however, are the indications of a force far bigger than an individual pulling the strings. Soon packages of vacuum-packed, tasteless food are left outside their door to sustain them.

Then one day, instead of food, they find a newborn baby boy in the box along with an ominous note: ‘Raise the child and be released.’ This is no normal child, however. He grows up at an otherworldly speed, to the equivalent of six or seven years old in a matter of months.

Wearing estate agent garb and slicked back hair, he speaks in a combination of Tom and Gemma’s speech, which he mimics gutturally back at them. He’s always watching, always there.

While the terrors of suburban conformity have been satirised before, never has it been dismantled with such sparse, Sisyphean focus

Forced to pantomime parenthood, Gemma treats the boy with kindness, while Tom treats the It with aggression. He becomes obsessed with digging a large hole outside, believing it key to their escape. The boy is a cuckoo in the nest, then, who quickly estranges them from one another.

While the terrors of suburban conformity have been satirised before — in The Stepford Wives, for example — never has it been dismantled with such sparse, Sisyphean focus. The things we strive for may actually trap us; that white picket fence becomes the bars of a prison.

It’s there in the language — ‘tied down’ by kids or a mortgage, the ‘ball and chain’ of a spouse. A vivarium, or ‘a place of life’ in Latin, is an enclosure for raising plants or animals under semi-natural conditions.

Lorcan Finnegan’s pitch-black comedy makes you pleased for your own little corner of the world, in these isolated times — as a generation reassesses its priorities, we’re itching to hop the white picket fence and go clear.

Rampa  They Will Be