It’s about a third of the way through the enigmatic and quite mind-boggling Vivarium that you start to wonder one thing: why isn’t Imogen Poots a bigger star? She has leading looks, is very adept at drama and comedy, and has been solidly working and leading / co-leading films for about fifteen years. Why, then, isn’t she an Emma Stone or something similar? Maybe it’s her choices, like this film, that serve to mark her as a little more daring than just leading tentpoles.
Vivarium is a film that works on mystique and as such we shan’t ruin too much. The basic set up is thus: Tom and Gemma are looking for a new house, Gemma is an elementary school teacher and Tom is a handyman of sorts, they go to a strange estate agents where they are shown the prefabbed neighbourhood of Yonder, and the house at number 9. When their tour guide leaves, and they can’t find their way out of the neighbourhood, things get weird.
Vivarium starts weirdly, a credit sequence shows the brutality of nature on a micro-scale in a way that calls to mind David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, before basically becoming a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror – that’s no criticism, both shows are incredible “what ifs” and tales of the strange and scary, and this film feels right at home. You half expect Jordan Peele or Rod Serling to show up and say “picture a neighbourhood…”
The design of Yonder is incredible, a weird inoffensive but also horrible green colour that every house looks the same, like it was ripped right from one of Tim Burton’s darker critiques on small-town America. Like the town from Edward Scissorhands, but infinitely weirder.
Lorcan Finnegan directs the film with a sure hand, never revealing too much, and at times that comes as something of an issue as easy answers are not what he or screenwriter Garret Shanley are interested in. The film poses interesting ideas about what it means to be in love, or parentings, the nature of fate, but never offers the film’s own opinion.
Within a few short scenes, you get the feeling of what Tom and Gemma’s relationship is so when weird people crop up in the film you also get the feeling that they share the fear. This is helped by a good if not surprisingly turn from Jesse Eisenberg and a powerful lead turn from Imogen Poots, as they both navigate the film’s ever-changing and shifting atmosphere.
When Vivarium works, it really works, as an unsettling, at times unnerving mood piece that hinges really on two performances and the chemistry they share, though by the end its lack of answers might prove frustrating for some. It doesn’t help that when a parental subplot occurs it doesn’t subvert them in the way that you would hope.
Even so, and with lashing of gallows humour, Vivarium is an unsettling ride that will leave you deeply disturbed long after the final image has left the screen, and will have you wondering just what the film meant. Or, in other words, just another day in The Twilight Zone.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.