Vivarium: a smart satire on suburban soullessness

The Twilight Zone meets The Truman Show as Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg find themselves trapped in a twisted version of normality.

Imogen Poots as Gemma and Jesse Eisenberg as Tom in Vivarium

Vivarium is streaming on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema.

A Latin word meaning, literally, ‘place of life’, a vivarium is also an enclosed area in which animals or plants are raised for observation and research. That’s the biggest clue that, despite its seemly conventional focus on a young couple attempting to put down roots for their long-term future, Lorcan Finnegan’s second feature, following his 2016 debut Without Name, may not be all it appears.

That it opens with the upsetting image of a cuckoo ejecting a baby bird and egg from the nest it’s commandeering is another red flag – and a neat thematic signpost – but things soon settle into a more familiar tempo. Keen to get on the property ladder, young urban couple Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) are tempted by strange sales agent Martin (Jonathan Aris) to visit a new housing development on the outskirts of town, named ‘Yonder’. Finding a sprawling, soulless estate of cookie-cutter homes, Tom and Gemma are underwhelmed and, realising that Martin has left, attempt to find the exit.

That’s when this supposed suburban idyll begins to fracture. After driving for hours through a confusing mass of identical streets, their car runs out of gas and, dejected, they head back to the house they viewed and fall asleep. The next day is the same, and the next, and soon weeks have passed. Every so often a box of generic supplies – cleaning products and vacuum-sealed meat – is delivered by unseen hands.

One day, however, the box contains a squealing baby boy and a commanding note: “Raise the child and be released.” The point is well and truly made: Tom and Gemma must forget all individual ambition and concentrate their energies entirely on the care of this boy (played by Senan Jennings as a youngster and Eanna Hardwicke as a young adult). And, bewilderingly, he grows at an exponential rate, screams incessantly until he’s given cereal, stares at the TV static for hours and, weirdly, copies Tom and Gemma’s voices and mannerisms. Behaviours that, while heightened to fantastical levels, most parents will recognise as containing more than a grain of truth.

That’s the real horror at the heart of Vivarium: that the conventional idea of a perfect life is less a template and more a trap, that parenthood can be as much a curse as a reward. It’s not an original thought by any means, but it’s expertly executed. While there are elements of Yorgos Lanthimos in Finnegan and co-writer Garret Shanley’s deliberate skewering of domestic bliss, the approach here is about creeping unease, the cold resignation to an inescapable fate.

Vivarium (2019)

Production designer Philip Murphy has built Yonder to be a place suspended in time, a menacing mix of The Truman Show and The Twilight Zone. Houses stretch to the horizon, two-dimensional clouds seem to have been hung in the sky. It’s packed with everything we are told we should want – picket fences, gleaming appliances, a ready-made family – but it’s all cold, calculated and devoid of real life. An edgy, scratchy score from Kristian Eidnes Andersen heightens the uncanny atmosphere.

Tom and Gemma handle the situation in very different ways and, as they attempt to deal with their new reality – and, in the process, slowly lose their minds – Finnegan pointedly leans in to notions of gender and traditional societal roles. As Tom, Eisenberg is skittish, selfish and increasingly angry, putting all his focus on digging an escape tunnel in the garden and ignoring the child that has been foisted upon them.

In contrast, Poots brings raw emotion to Gemma, who initially refuses to engage with the boy but eventually falls into a maternal role – spurred on by the very real threat Tom poses to the child – and attempts to show love and kindness. These do bring her fleeting moments of connection, a brief glimpse of happiness even, as she dances with the boy to the car radio, but ultimately have no impact on the child’s behaviour or the events unfolding around her.

Try as they might, whether through brute force or gentle nurture, there’s simply nothing Tom and Gemma can do to escape their situation – one that, from the outside, looks like everything they aspired to, but which has turned out to be a hellish purgatory. And surely that’s the most disturbing thing of all – that modern happiness is a regulated construct to which we all blindly subscribe, but which may turn out to be a prison of our own making.