Wednesday 25 March 2020

This house is not a home: "Vivarium"

For a while, I wondered whether Vivarium - written by Garret Shanley and directed by Lorcan Finnegan - wasn't overplaying its hand. Nesting newlyweds Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, shopping around for a nice place to settle, take the fateful misstep of entering a showroom presided over by Martin (Jonathan Aris), creepy frontman for a shiny new housing development. Shot from below in unnerving close-up, Martin is so obviously bad news - so obviously a character from a horror movie, where the sensible Imogen and Jesse aren't - that you wonder why our heroes don't immediately turn on their heels. That the housing development, when we visit it, appears to occupy the same soundstage abandoned at the conclusion of The Truman Show - rows of identikit, obviously fake little boxes, painted sickly green beneath CG fluffy clouds - is itself hardly promising; ditto the lack of neighbours or phone signal and the apparent absence of any route back to normality. Gradually it dawned on me that we're not meant to be watching people stuck in a recognisable situation, but actors trapped on a film set; that the presiding influence isn't Jordan Peele, say, but Pirandello. The movie is an abstraction of something, not an attempt at agitation.

Once you accept that - that Vivarium is a tricksy puzzle box, a film that slides neatly between the Canadian sci-fi Cube and the self-referential universe of Eisenberg's own Zombieland - there's a measure of contained, clever-clever fun to be had with it. The big question Shanley and Finnegan set us is what exactly they're abstracting. The couple burn down one house only to find, once the smoke clears, that it's still standing and newly pristine; they take delivery of a cardboard box containing a baby boy and the instruction they will be released if they successfully raise him. (These words will come back to haunt everybody.) In the blink of an eye, the child turns into the weirdest little creature, dressed like a Mormon and running round beneath his keepers' feet, assimilating all their worst characteristics and just begging for a sharp clip round the ear. If Vivarium means anything, I think it means to set young parents to nodding and thinking "yup, been there". The film's a bit like that youngster, all told: it's an odd one, but it develops in unusual, disarming ways, and in so doing points up how many of our homegrown, mid-budget genre pictures arrive woefully underdeveloped.

For starters, this is a pretty good set to be stuck on (kudos, production designer Philip Murphy): airless and easily controlled, yes, but eerie, too, with hidden depths (watery sunlight that provides some salve during one death scene, uncanny acoustics, pavement that pulls up like carpet). And we have appreciable company to be stuck with. Poots and Eisenberg present as goofy kids, skanking in the headlights of their car, who become increasingly exasperated and exhausted by the existential cul-de-sac they find themselves in; even as the timeline lurches forward, they don't get older but wearier, winning only the sallow complexions of eternal shut-ins. (Here is another title that will likely fare better on this enforced streaming release than it would have done theatrically in normal circumstances.) Between them, the leads succeed in fleshing out Shanley's potentially brittle concept, filling this notional model home with diverse models of parenting: the accidental dad throwing himself into his work, to the detriment of his own health (Eisenberg gives him a gravely horrible cough that sounds very different in March 2020 than it would have done on set), mum patiently putting up with the foundling's tantrums, and sensing that her charge might be key to any return to the real world. You feel a lot hinging on the payoff, and I wasn't sure Shanley and Finnegan were of a mind to hand out much in the way of answers, but by then, Vivarium has at least established itself as a more substantial, better carpentered proposition than the flimsy clapboard construction you might first have seen it as.

Vivarium will be available to stream from Friday.

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