Moving Pictures
Apr 01, 2020, 06:28AM

Let's Get Creepy in Quarantine

Vivarium, a Cannes 2019 selection, has now been widely distributed online. B-

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A 2019 Cannes debut that's arriving on digital and VOD channels, Vivarium is an intensely creepy sci-fi thriller that approximates the worst real estate nightmare imaginable, while also serving as something of a satire of suburban alienation and conformity. A vivarium is defined as a terrarium for small animals, and in case you didn't catch the metaphor, the film begins with a shot of two birds in an enclosed space.

Directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley, Vivarium stars Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots as Tom and Gemma, a young couple looking to buy their first house. He's American, she's English, and they appear to live in Ireland. Steered by a realtor (Jonathan Aris), towards a massive subdivision called Yonder, the two go and look at a house.

Once they're inside, the agent disappears, and the two find themselves unable to leave, as any attempt to drive around the development just leads them back to the same place. Even though they never, technically, completed paperwork to buy the house, they soon realize they're trapped, possibly forever, in a fabricated, Truman Show-like universe, with a fake sky and houses identical to theirs reaching to the far horizon. Meanwhile, their car is out of gas and they don't seem to have working cell phones. Which is bad enough for them, until the baby shows up.

The baby arrives in a box, along with a note with the instructions "raise the child and be released." And even more strangely, the baby grows quickly, from an infant into a seven-year-old and eventually an adult. At whatever age, the kid is spooky, speaking in unnatural voices, occasionally screaming, and spending most of his time staring at strange test patterns on TV. It would all be highly unsettling even if the boy, in adult form, didn't resemble the Trumpian grifter Jacob Wohl.

The situation drives both of the characters nuts and puts strains on their relationship, with Tom actively trying to hurt the child but Gemma establishing more of a parental bond. Tom deals with the stress by digging a seemingly infinite hole in the front yard, while Gemma tries to go with the flow until doing so become untenable.

Jesse Eisenberg gives a performance that's mostly quiet, pissed-off intensity. He's okay, if not up to his career-best work in last year's fantastic The Art of Self-Defense. Imogen Poots was also in that film—though she and Eisenberg weren't a couple at that time—and she gives one of her best turns in Vivarium, as a woman slowly losing her grip. The best part of the film, though, is the kid, played as a seven-year-old by Senan Jennings, who exudes unsettling creepiness at just about every moment.

This is one of those films that leads up to a point where it doesn't appear that any satisfying ending is possible, although it ultimately lands somewhere that at least makes sense. Vivarium makes a compelling argument for maybe renting instead of buying.


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