It’s easy to think that our lives have become bottle episodes in recent weeks: single location stories cut off from the grand narrative of our ordinary lives and the usual onrush of world events, culture and sport included.
Current uncertainty makes this hiatus feel like it’s stretching out to a vanishing point on an endlessly receding horizon. Such is the feeling perfectly embodied in Lorcan Finnegan’s cunning chiller Vivarium, available in the UK this week on digital platforms. Gemma (Imogen Poots) is a primary school teacher who, with her handyman partner Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), is looking for a place to live. They enter a boutique-like estate agents where an oddly out of place realtor Martin (Jonathan Aris), passively-aggressively manipulates them into viewing a house in the portentously named Yonder Estate.
Starter home anonymity and showroom interiors don’t even begin to describe the oppressive neatness of the place with lawns that look like they need hoovering rather than mowing. It looks like the tidy interior of a New Yorker cartoon. You’ve heard of the uncanny valley? Well, this is it. Unfortunately, Martin seems to have legged it and when the bemused pair decide they’ve had enough, they find that there is no escape. So far, so Twilight Zone.
The worry with this kind of high concept quirkathon is that its real home would be an hour-long slot on Black Mirror, a TV show that had until recently cornered the market on this kind of future shock vibe. But Finnegan and his screenwriter Garret Shanley – with whom he has collaborated on all his films – keep the plot moving with a series of inventive twists and cinematographer MacGregor and production designer Philip Murphy create a universe akin to an IKEA store drawn by Maurits Escher. It also helps that Eisenberg and in particular Poots bring a naturalism and believability to their characters which contrasts all the more starkly with the artifice in which they must live.
The situation becomes even stranger with the arrival of a baby, delivered like an Amazon parcel, who they must raise in order to win their freedom. Growing at an accelerated rate, the boy (Senan Jennings) creates a rift as the child-rearing falls to Gemma and Tom starts thinking dark thoughts as he obsessively digs a hole in the garden as if that might offer some sort of escape route. The boy encapsulates the weirdness of the place with his imitations of the adults and occasional bursts of full-throated screaming.
Eisenberg’s clamped brand of nebbishness works well in this environment but it is Poots with an easy confident performance that gives the film the heart in a heartless world. It’s open to debate whether this claustrophobic little parable means something. It’s devilishly clever but there’s a suspicion that this is beautiful calligraphy without words. And yet with the added circumstance of self-isolation, quarantine and quiet four-walled despair, Vivarium will undoubtedly resonate.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty