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Dublin director Lorcan Finnegan has already established himself as a filmmaker to watch. This was with the one-two punch of his acclaimed short Foxes in 2012, about a couple trapped in a remote housing estate and the animals that surround them, and his debut feature Without Name in 2016, a slow burn Polanski-esque horror centring on an English land surveyor losing his mind in a haunted Irish forest. With his sophomore feature Vivarium – the opening film of this year’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival – he has built on that early promise, further cementing his reputation as a master of mood.
A companion piece of sorts to Foxes, Vivarium centres on Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), a young couple who want to purchase a house and as such, visit an estate agency. There, they meet Martin (Jonathan Aris, BBC’s recent Dracula), a strange salesman who says he knows just the place, telling them of a new development called ‘Yonder’.
Together, the three drive to the area – an artificial looking suburban neighbourhood where all the houses are identical to each other and even the clouds and sun in the sky have a plastic quality to them. Once there, Martin vanishes without a trace and when Gemma and Tom attempt to drive away, they find there is no escape – returning to the same spot in a loop until their car runs out of petrol. They then discover a box with a tiny infant inside and the instructions: “Raise the child and be released.”
In a way which evokes episodes of The Twilight Zone, Vivarium uses a claustrophobic confined setting to probe real world issues. Through the lens of a sci-fi horror, we watch the young and relatively carefree Gemma and Tom, against their will, be pushed into fulfilling the roles society seems to demand of adults: to buy a house in the suburbs, have a child and raise it to adulthood.
It’s not the most subtle overall metaphor – you half expect David Byrne to pop out of a closet and belt out ‘Once in a Lifetime’. Yet, Finnegan and his screenwriting partner Garret Shanley do make it compelling, through striking little details and a strain of offbeat dark humour which prevents Vivarium from ever becoming too pretentious. In terms of the former, Eisenberg’s Tom discovers that the soil of his new suburban home is fake and grows obsessed with digging a hole, thinking he and Gemma could burrow out of Yonder. It essentially becomes his job, his purpose, something he needs to do to fill out his days. Yet, the further he shovels, it becomes clear what his inevitable fate will be, another ingenious piece of symbolism by Shanley.
While Gemma and Tom find themselves trapped in an existential nightmare – Poots’ character tells her rapidly growing, unnerving unnamed son (played by Senan Jennings and Eanna Hardwicke at different points): “All we wanted was a home” – Finnegan and Shanley find plenty of room for comedy. Jonathan Aris is wickedly funny as the real estate agent who traps them in Yonder. He looks and behaves like an alien or robot’s impression of a human – a quality which makes every line as he shows Gemma and Tom the house a gem and recalls the style of Yorgos Lanthimos, especially the similar in tone The Lobster.
The film also mines humour from Gemma and Tom’s surrogate son’s weird tics. Some of these feel very tied to real life – his incessant screaming when he doesn’t get his way, waking them up early each morning. Others, however, are just plain horrifying such as when he replicates his new parents’ voices to a tee, creeping them out to no end.
The central performances are effective in keeping viewers invested over Vivarium’s 97 minutes. It’s sad to watch the likeable jerk that is Eisenberg’s character turn into just a jerk under the circumstances. Meanwhile, one close up of Poots’ wide eyes (something which makes her so great in horrors like Green Room or the recent Black Christmas) sells viewers on the terror of her confinement.
Vivarium is pitched somewhere between the mainstream and the arthouse. It doesn’t provide clear answers, yet the scraps of information viewers do get are enough to satisfy. By its end, there’s plenty of room for people to find their own interpretation both for what happens in the movie and what it signifies about the real world.
No doubt viewers will leave Vivarium wondering exactly what genre it is – horror, sci-fi, an absurdist tragicomedy? What cannot be denied though is that Finnegan is one of Ireland’s brightest cinematic voices, a filmmaker who not only thrills audiences but makes them think.