Fitting the definition of a proper, excuse my language, mindfuck film, Vivarium, the sophomore feature from Irish filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan, seeks to bend what is up and what is down with a shroud of mystery and fog filling the middle in between. The top traits of a good mindf*ck film are the measured balance of its revelations and the urge the movie builds for repeat viewing. Try as it may, Vivarium can hit those benchmarks.
Opening on feature-debuting cinematographer MacGregor’s close-up imagery of baby birds over a sonic score by Kristian Eidnes Anderson, Vivarium telegraphs quickly the primal tones of instinctual intent waiting underneath its domestic setting. One of the birds is granted nourishment for survival and the next one seen without a nest is on the losing end of that battle. Drawing parallels early to future needs of sustenance and shelter, our main characters lament on the world’s randomness speaking the notion of how nature is horrible sometimes.
Those leads are primary elementary school teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots of Green Room) and her American groundskeeper/handyman beau Tom (Jesse Eisenberg, always game for frazzle). They have reached a point in their relationship where cohabitation is on the brain. Unmarried yet merged in doting dedication to each other, the couple are casually shopping to get a home together and consider starting a family.
Gemma and Tom step into the small street-front sales office of Prospect Properties. Welcomed by an odd and over-expressive agent named Martin (prolific TV and film actor Jonathan Aris), they are pitched Yonder, an idyllic housing development of spacious and quaint single-family homes that is said to be “near enough and far enough” for every convenience. The sweethearts weigh whether such a pretty picture is worth a look.
Sigh. This has to be bluntly said, but everything that happens after this point could have been prevented with discerning taste and appropriate decision-making consistent with the characters being portrayed. How this milquetoast realtor and the banality of Yonder’s squareness swayed this bohemian duo that jams to old British-Jamaican reggae in the car to last more than two-minutes in that office, let alone going through with following the creeper out of town, is a stupefying development in a movie that exudes smartness everywhere else. This isn’t supposed to be Downsizing with submissive dopes. Don’t follow weird people please.
Martin takes Gemma and Tom through the circular avenues of Yonder to Unit #9 and gives them the grand tour of its sophisticated class and homely appointments. After a bit of moseying, the two visitors find Martin and his car gone. When they try to drive their way out, they are lost in the seemingly identical inlets and outlets. Eventually they run out of gas right back in front of #9 and elect to spend the night.
The passage of time moves this beyond a predicament as hours turn into days. In Yonder, there is not a lick of wind or a whisper of sound. The clouds look hung and fixed in a sickeningly perfect way. Echoes are limited and cell phone reception is nil. One morning, Gemma and Tom receive a Prospect Properties box of supplies and provisions on the sidewalk edge of the yard. The next day, another box contains a baby with the instructions “raise the child and be released.” Vivarium tailspins from there with an experiment in mindless mundanity versus futile hope.
One of the best parts of the audience experience in a mindfuck movie is the internal quiz viewers put themselves through, especially watching good people here be overwhelmed. They wonder how they would react. Watchers compare decisions and ask when their own will would break or, worse, their sanity. Vivarium starts strong in that domain.
The span of this sinister snare tests relationship strengths and strains. Tom forces himself to be the fixer and therefore pushes Gemma in return to be the maternal one. Their maddening distractions in a place of no visible escape are not always helpful, definitely don’t match, and grow darker with the continued confinement. Jesse Eisenberg will always be a dynamite choice for an unraveling role, but Imogen Poots, contrary to traditional gender roles, is the tougher nut that isn’t cracking. This is an very good top-line part for her.
Vivarium earns very positive credit for its premise and aim. Bending relationship dynamics of survival and gender roles around the middle-class dreams of homeownership and building a family is, no question, both absorbing and ambitious. The social commentary is as frank as it is smartly bleak. The graying realities are well-masked by the colorful production dwellings constructed by two prop department veterans in set decorator Julia Davin-Power and production designer Philip Murphy teaming with rookie art director Robert Barrett. Their dreamscape trap of the Yonder development is rightly simplistic yet imposing.
Unfortunately, the movie fails in the elements of payoff matching those previously mentioned top mindf*ck traits. Not enough happens to push you to learn more. By the time Finnegan finally turns and twists the wannabe Escher screws, too little comes of it. Hit it harder and hit it earlier. Sure, no mindf*ck film needs to explain or reveal everything. That would take the fun out of them.
That said, the ideas a film such as this one throws to the wall have to be tacky enough to stick and linger. Moreover, the best notions of sub-genre hang around with a delectable residue to make one lick their fingers rather than reach for a napkin. Vivarium is missing the aiming height that multiplies its mystery and peril into something captivating. You need a little bit of “what was all that for” and jaw-dropping actuality. This is a good single spin with an intriguing premise, but not a re-watch contender that calls us to circle back with desire or fixation.