Vivarium review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
If there’s any singular element that has protruded more into the new rise of social thrillers, it would be bluntness. With the revival of The Twilight Zone once more pounding allegory hard into the media once more, several films and TV series have been less shy about what they’re trying to say. Vivarium fits that criteria, practically a Twilight Zone episode with the way it is staged. There’s no doubt that this film is trying to make a bold statement on the nihilistic nature of suburban dysfunction. Well, unless you put the film on mute and just accept its premise as weird for the sake of weird. You can if you want, but you’ll get far less out of the film.
The film concerns a young couple that are seeking to settle down in a suburban neighborhood. The couple of Genna (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) visit Yonder, a suburb where every home literally looks the same, making it a difficult place to navigate with no discerning characteristics. It’s a very creepy place considering how uncomfortably silent the neighborhood is. More creepy stuff happens when their relator vanishes during a showing and Genna and Tom are unsure how to leave Yonder. With nowhere to go with their car out of gas, they settle into the house labeled only as #9.
Of course, they find escape is impossible. No matter how far they drive, no matter how far they try to seek civilization outside the suburbs, they are trapped with no way out. They are given instructions, however, on how they can leave. Left with an infant, they receive a note: “Raise the child and be released.” Though it seems like a lifetime sentence, the couple are astounded at how fast the child grows, accelerating from seven months to seven years in record time. Or is time slipping away from the couple as their mental state goes downhill fast when trapped in such an environment?
Vivarium only grows blunter as the farce continues. Tom at one point finds that the soil of Yonder is artificial and that there may be something beneath the surface, leading to him digging a deep, deep hole. The metaphors in that very sentence should be most obvious in what the film is trying to say about the nature of existentialism when lodged within the suburban setting that traps the soul. Physically and mentally, Tom and Gemma grow distant, angry, and violent as they wither a slow death, their boy only growing smarter, stronger and all the more mysterious. It quickly becomes clear the release referred to in the note is not what the couple thinks it is.
Though Vivarium operates on a commentary most blunt, there’s an added dose of intrigue for the year of its conception. Though produced before the Covid-19 pandemic, it rings a bit more true for the new family trapped at home, unable to escape and growing weaker by the day in all aspects. Of course, Vivarium’s more apparent them is that of the circular logic in a dull life of comfort that is anything but comforting for the entrapment placed upon the unassuming. There’s an added dose of the cruelty of nature, also delivered with a boldness that creates unease as well, but it all essentially gravitates back towards the darkness lurking under the surface of suburban living. Though it spoonfeeds the audience this messaging, I think we’re living in times where he deserve media that cannot be misinterpreted. Vivarium is very direct and quite refreshing in that regard.