The thriller genre has always had a cultural appreciation for suburbia. Though the suburbs were designed to make families feel safe and secure, the isolation and homogeneity have always made it a perfect setting for strange, sinister occurrences to unfold. So, filmmakers have often looked to capture the devilish underbelly hiding behind the tree-lined streets, white picket fences and cookie-cutter houses.
Lorcan Finnegan's Vivarium, which premiered at Cannes 2019 as part of the Critics' Week sidebar, turns suburbia into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Taking existential cues from Black Mirror and its spiritual predecessor The Twilight Zone, the Irish filmmaker delivers a bracingly original, thought-provoking sci-fi thriller.
The film opens with a shot of a cuckoo bird pushing another bird's newborn chicks out of the nest, in an attempt to trick the host bird to raise its offspring. A young girl finds one of the dead newborn chicks lying on the ground outside her pre-school. She asks her teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots): "Why did they have to die?" "It's nature," quick comes the reply. This and the film's title foreshadow the ominous events that will soon unfold.
Gemma and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple who have decided to take the plunge of buying their first home. They enter a real estate agency, where they are greeted by an agent (Jonathan Aris) who ticks the boxes for all sorts of creepy " and someone people in the real world would stay away from. Alas, Gemma and Tom don't. The creepy agent takes them to a new suburban housing community called Yonder, which is filled with endless rows of identical homes. After giving them a tour of their "perfect family home" " House No 9, he splits, never to be seen again.
When Gemma and Tom look to make their way out of the community, they find themselves unable to leave. They drive in different directions but always ends up in front of House No 9. With not a single living soul around, they soon realise they're trapped. As their car runs out of fuel, they decide to spend the night in their "home."
Night turns into day; day turns into night but they can't find a way out. Boxes with food, water and basic amenities mysteriously appear on a daily basis. One day, one such box arrives with a baby inside and a simple instruction: "Raise the child, and you'll be freed."
They reluctantly raise the baby, who rapidly ages within 60-odd days into an obnoxious little boy, who's as creepy as the real estate agent. He lets out an ear-splitting scream if he isn't given food on time; or if he isn't allowed to watch some strange hypnotic patterns swirl on the TV screen. He even has the uncanny ability to impersonate both Gemma and Tom's voices perfectly.
All the while, they still look to escape. Tom tries to burn the house down, writes "HELP" on the roof of the house and obsessively tries to dig himself out. But it's futile as it begins to seem like they're stuck in this suburgatory for eternity.
Vivarium essentially belongs to Poots. Her performance is rich with internal conflict between her maternal and survival instincts. She keeps you invested in the plot even when it twists and turns and gets a little repetitive. Eisenberg plays the same kind of moody and awkward drone-like character he's played several times throughout his career.
The film offers a strong critique of the middle-class suburban dream and those easily seduced by it. The community of Yonder feels like a grotesque piece of social engineering, with its identical green houses, counterfeit clouds and sun. The film emphasises why our need for community should never come at the cost of conformity.
The labyrinthine world of Yonder feels like an MC Escher lithograph come to life. Every little detail is on point and adds to the mindf*ck. The camera work and production design may not be as elaborate as many of the big-budgeted sci-fi films but it is still quietly efficient in establishing character, atmosphere, and an intense uneasiness. Kristian Eidnes Andersen's sound design lays on the dread with finesse and helps create a sombre and increasingly suspenseful mood.
Vivarium provides plenty of thrills and chills without having to resort to cheap jump scares or gratuitous gore. And without a doubt, it is one of the most exciting films to come out of Cannes this year.
(This review was first published when Vivarium had its world premiere in the Critics' Week section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is being republished in view of the film's Indian premiere on BookMyShow Stream.)