David Lynch and The Twilight Zone have taught audiences the most frightening stories can be found in a run of the mill suburbia. Vivarium is a 2019 film starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots that defies description. An intriguing premise and strong performances make this more than just a cool story, however.
Vivarium tells the story of Tom and Gemma. The young couple are about to take the next step in their relationship. The two are planning on moving in together and have begun the search for a new home. When they meet a real estate agent that takes them to the seemingly perfect house, they discover domestic bliss is not as easy as they thought.
The setting for the movie is genius in its simplicity. Almost the entire movie takes place in a small neighborhood. As is common nowadays, every single house looks exactly the same. From the front porch to the backyard, it is impossible to tell any two of them apart without careful scrutiny. This sameness is what makes the film so frightening.
Stories with a big focus on mazes are always frightening. Being lost with no clear way out is a common fear. Vivarium puts a different spin on the idea. Instead of wandering aimlessly through an unknown area, the couple are in a very familiar area. It may be new to Tom and Gemma, but they are simply in a neighborhood.
It is a terrifying thought. The prison in Vivarium is not haunted woods or the wrong side of the tracks. It is the type of place where children ride their bikes around while people happily mow their lawns. It is not foreboding, it is ordinary. There is no reason to be scared, making it the scariest place in the world.
Along with putting fear in the audience, the normal neighborhood also wants to tries a comment on suburbia. What does a person have to give up to live a “normal” life? Vivarium seems to be saying individuality is the cost. If that is the case, there is certainly a point to be made, but the film only vaguely touches on that theme.
The same can be said of the relationship between Tom and Gemma. The two are trapped in a suburbia so quaint it has become Hell. As expected, the plot is as much about the psyche of the two main characters as it is the circumstances. This is very hit and miss.
Unsurprisingly, relations become strained. Where Vivarium falters is how it deals with the two. Tom becomes obsessed with finding a way out of the neighborhood. He becomes single minded and begins to ignore Gemma and the son that was literally delivered to them. As things progress, Tom loses touch with reality.
The story becomes a mixed bag at this point. Jesse Eisneberg does his normal excellent job. He delivers his line with perfectly. There is the almost dry cadence that dares someone to say it is awkward. Everything Tom does is with certainty and confidence. As the plot advances, the audience can see Tom’s frustration. Watching him lose his sanity is sad, scary, and interesting.
The problem is, Eisenberg does not really fit the role. He spends much of his time doing physical labor. If he is not cleaning yards, he is digging holes. It is not that Eisenberg is not capable of doing manual work; he just seems miscast as a seemingly rugged man. This really stands out during some excellent monologues from Tom.
Gemma is also portrayed oddly. In this case, it has nothing to do with Poots. The English actress does a fine job in a role that is given much more emotional heft. That wide range is also what makes the character so frustrating. It is almost as if there is too much going on. Is she a victim or circumstances or is the story more about a maternal instinct? Vivarium poses the question without ever truly answering it.
Despite these flaws, the duo work well together. The great chemistry seen in The Art of Self-Defense is put to the test here. Much of the film is just Eisenberg and Poots. They do a wonderful job of conveying the frustration and tension of the story. The film would fall flat without the job done by its stars.
Vivarium is a hard movie to summarize. It is clearly science fiction, but from there it refuses to be categorized. Part horror, part suspense, and part thriller, the story runs a gamut of genres without ever feeling rushed or nonsensical. One thing is certain: Vivarium is an homage to stories of the past in a modern setting.