Gemma and Tom (Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple in love. They make each other laugh, bop along to music in the car together and show the kind of affection for one another that feels true-to-life outside the shorthand of cinema.
They each have their foibles but it’s plain to see in the way both leads look and act around each other that the pros outweigh the cons. And so, the beginning of Vivarium shows us in no uncertain terms, why Tom and Gemma are looking for a place that they can call home.
Gemma has a promising lead in a new development that’s a little out of the way. “Not too near, not too far,” quips Martin (Jonathan Aris), the odd-duck estate agent that’s going to be showing them around Number Nine, Yonder. A billboard at the entrance of the estate reads: “You’re Home Right Now. Quality Family Homes. Forever”.
Martin is so confident in his salesmanship that he ignores Gemma and Tom’s misgivings about the house. He goes about his scripted routine with little care for their feelings on the matter. Martin’s main form of interaction with the couple is to parrot phrases or gestures back at them. Is he rude, or cracked. or both?
We don’t have much time to mull this over. Martin’s spiel fails to convince Tom and Gemma, but before they can make their excuses and leave he’s disappeared. The confused couple are then left unable to find their way out of the labyrinthine housing estate.
What follows is an amusing, revealing and ultimately, chilling sequence in which Tom and Gemma drive their car around and around in loops. Their bemusement at the situation soon turns to anger at Martin, and at one another’s driving ability.
Eventually, they pivot to despair. Walking the same looping streets that always lead back to the house when the car runs out of fuel and then starting a fire that fails to alert anyone to their whereabouts. Eventually, the arrival of a human baby packaged in a cardboard box (you read that right) forces the couple back into the house.
The show houses in Yonder are not dream homes, they’re life-size props. Number Nine and its neighbouring houses look like they’re made from foam board and clay. A prototype standing in for the real thing. In one scene, Tom flicks a cigarette onto the lawn and the grass in front of the house burns up with an unsettling stop-motion effect.
The houses are for show – a show with this unwitting couple as its stars. Gemma and Tom are living somewhere between the uncanny valley and Toontown, and as the days turn into months it looks more and more like hell.
The arrival of the box baby appears, at first, to offer some hope or purpose for the couple but as with everything in Yonder, there’s a catch. A cut brings us forward in time, we see the baby now grown to around eight years of age. Dressed like a miniature man, starched shirt, preened hair and slacks he looks just as much a lifeless prop as the houses.
It’s all weird, wild stuff, as we soon find out that not that much time has passed since the child arrived at the house. Food arrives in the same way and the “family” have everything they need to live provided, as if by the universe.
The Boy is played in various stages of his life by Senan Jennings and Eanna Hardwicke. Both do the same routine as Jonathan Aris earlier in the picture, aping speech and gestures with mynah-like accuracy.
When he’s not mimicking Gemma and Tom, The Boy speaks as though his tongue were too big for his mouth. His voice, too, is a little too deep for a child, adding to the film’s unsettling vibe.
Vivarium’s big triumph is its production design. Its costume and sets, particularly those of the house and The Boy, are immaculate and unnervingly consistent. The horror of this rapidly growing creature is made all the realer by the film’s pristine costuming. The Boy’s clothes grow with it like a second skin.
In cartoons and comic strips, characters wear the same costumes in every episode, backgrounds loop to save the animators time, and a seemingly endless amount of TNT or ACME anvils explode or get thrown around. Still, things end up back where they began again in time for the next episode. Any attempt that Tom and Gemma make to change their fate, or the state of the world ends up in futility.
Other elements like the repeating wallpaper-style clouds that hang in the sky contribute to a sense of imprisonment. The world is wide open, the sky stretches for miles but so too do identical rows of houses and looping, go-nowhere streets. Gemma and Tom, not too far off a famous cat and mouse pair, find themselves trapped in a nightmarish cartoon of domesticity.
I had jotted “Kafkaesque” in my notes at an early point in the film, toward the end I struck through that note and wrote “Friz Freleng. Chuck Jones. Tex Avery” in its place feeling that what I was seeing was more Merrie Melodies than The Metamorphosis.
Many episodes of “family” life play out in rapid succession in the course of the film. The couple struggle with The Boy, who screams when he wants things rather than ask for them. They bicker over parenting and begin to drift from one another on account of this.
In one sequence, The Boy wakes them up because he’s watching television, which shows a horrible test pattern accompanied by a pulsating rhythm. Gemma tries to stop him but eventually gives in, throwing up her hands and exclaiming “What can I do?” Anyone who’s tried to wrangle a kid away from the TV knows this frustrated tone of resignation. These little humorous moments provide a chuckle, but they always feel as though we are complicit in the cruelty.
The world of a cartoon is an amusing diversion from our lives where an elastic logic serves humour above anything else. Bugs Bunny is fun to watch on screen, but living with him would be a totally different story and that’s how it is with The Boy. He exists as a tormenting parasite, and though he looks like a human, enough to have Gemma’s judgment lapse a couple of times in fact, he acts as anything but.
Vivarium is in that way, a monstrous-child kind of horror film, but I’d put it more in line with those sorts of plots in which a recently deceased pet or a wax work or a Plymouth Fury comes to life and torments someone.
Poots and Eisenberg sell the script throughout. There’s very little glamour in their roles. Just as there’s little glamour in the day-to-day running of any house. Lorcan Finnegan’s direction favours close-ups of faces. It’s in these close-ups that we can see the toll that Yonder has had on Gemma and Tom, in the bags under their eyes and the increasing paleness of their skin. It’s through close-ups too, that we see the unchanging features of The Boy. Even as he undergoes major growth spurts, the clothes, the expression, the plastic moulded hairdo remains the same.
At 97 minutes Vivarium doesn’t overstretch its high-concept. Although the last act does let things down with some unnecessary exposition. The film shows us its ideas and mysteries quite plainly, even those watching absent-mindedly will pick up what Finnegan and co-writer Garret Shanley are putting down. That quibble aside, Vivarium is a spooky and inventive film with enough tricks to distinguish itself from the also-rans in the Spooky House genre.