From the moment that Vivarium’s opening bright red credits flash onto the screen à la Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, you know you’re in for a wild, unpredictable ride.
When young couple Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) arrive at an estate agency looking to buy a house together, they are greeted by Martin (Jonathan Aris), an overly-keen estate agent with a comically creepy demeanour. He takes the pair to Yonder, an enormous housing estate made up of identical houses painted in pale green, all with matching driveways and gardens. After viewing the immaculate house Number 9, Tom and Gemma go to leave but find themselves driving around in circles, always ending up back at Number 9 no matter which road they take. Once a mysterious package arrives outside the house, they realise that they are stuck in the estate and must follow the one single instruction left for them in order to be released.
Poots and Eisenberg are fascinating to watch as their characters unravel in completely different ways, but it’s the former who steals the show. Gemma starts as a gentle, kind-hearted primary school teacher but becomes increasingly volatile as she and Tom continuously try and fail to escape Yonder, their options and patience gradually wearing thin. Poots portrays Gemma’s growing hysteria brilliantly; you never quite know what her desperation is going to drive her to do next.
Aris doesn’t appear for very long as peculiar estate agent Martin, but the few scenes he has are comedy gold. His line delivery is somehow both enthusiastic and robotic, a combination which makes Martin hilarious and uncanny at the same time.
Vivarium is one of those films that truly defies genre; it cannot be sorted into one box. It’s a clever mix of comedy, mystery, and science fiction with a hint of horror, which keeps you on your toes throughout. The film’s writer and director Lorcan Finnegan combines these genres’ conventions but manages to keep the tone consistent. It remains weird and intriguing throughout but never goes so far that it becomes inane.
Similarly, the film steps very lightly into the realm of horror to create some unsettling moments, but it’s more eerie than frightening, which gels well with the tone. The entire film is overflowing with originality, bringing so many unique ideas to the table that those who claim that original cinema is “dying” will be hanging their heads in embarrassment.
Smart and inventive, Vivarium is gripping from the get-go and rarely loosens its hold. It loses a bit of momentum towards the finish and ends on a slightly underwhelming note, but overall, it’s a masterful sophomore feature from Finnegan that will certainly leave its mark.
Directed by: Lorcan Finnegan
Written by: Lorcan Finnegan, Garret Shanley
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Jonathan Aris