By Thomas Puhr.
With just two features under their belts, director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley have already mapped out a distinct approach to genre filmmaking. “Mapped” is the operative word here, since both Without Name (2016) and Vivarium (2019) share a preoccupation with hostile, maze-like landscapes: a labyrinthine forest in the former and the dreary, monochromatic streets of suburbia in the latter. Alas, neither mother nature nor a gated community provide solace for the poor souls who happen to stumble upon them.
In this case, the unwitting victims are Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots), a couple navigating that awkward terrain of moving in together. Enter local real estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris). By turns creepy and hilarious, Aris’ performance is a small marvel; his facial contortions and misplaced laugh suggest he’s still learning how to operate a human body. Martin goads Tom and Gemma into touring “Yonder” estates, and the latter quickly find themselves trapped in the otherwise deserted neighborhood after their peculiar guide vanishes. All of the houses are painted the same sickly off-green, and the unmoving clouds in the sky look like those you’d find painted on an infant’s bedroom wall.
While intriguing in its visuals (overhead shots of the perfectly curated, empty streets echo the hedge maze model from The Shining) and wry sense of humor (the “art” adorning the houses’ walls are paintings of their bland rooms), this introduction to Yonder feels a bit on the nose. Suburbia, after all, has become an all-too-easy mark for cinematic satire, be it dramatic (American Beauty, 1999), fantastic (Edward Scissorhands, 1990), or horrific (The Stepford Wives, 1975). Not one, but two films are entitled, you guessed it, Suburbia: Penelope Spheeris’ 1983 thriller and Richard Linklater’s 1996 dramedy (though the latter does shake things up by capitalizing the middle “u”). The subgenre has become a cliché unto itself, often just as monotonous as the lifestyle it targets.
Fortunately, Finnegan and Shanley have much more up their sleeves than suburban ennui, and they further complicate the protagonists’ situation when – spoiler alert – a newborn baby boy inexplicably arrives in a box on their doorstep, accompanied by a cryptic message: “RAISE THE CHILD AND BE RELEASED.” It may seem I’ve revealed much of the plot, but the above sequences occur within the film’s first twenty-some minutes. Discovering where the director and writer take this setup, and they go to some odd places indeed, is one of Vivarium’s great strengths.
Eisenberg’s and Poots’ performances help keep the film grounded. Both forego melodramatic overreactions, wandering the neighborhood’s streets in a puzzled haze rather than becoming hysterical. When the unnamed infant becomes an adolescent within days, they appear more bewildered than panicked. Eventually, the two settle into routines which attempt to recapture their normal lives: Tom, a gardener, manically digs a hole in the front yard after hearing mysterious noises underground; Gemma, a teacher, gravitates toward the child and builds something like a relationship with him. I suspect this is how real people would react, trying to maintain some semblance of order amidst increasingly-bizarre circumstances.
This mindset might explain the couple’s relationship with their adopted home. One may guffaw when, with an unusual sense of familiarity, they spend their first night in the house’s master bedroom. Why would they stay in such an obviously-menacing place? But all of their walks around the community somehow bring them back to the same address: Number 9. Where else, then, are they supposed to go? “You’re home. Forever,” reads the billboard outside the neighborhood. The seemingly-misused contraction says it all. Tom and Gemma don’t own the house; they’re trapped in it.
Finnegan clearly subscribes to the “less-is-more” school of thought, tantalizing his audience by withholding basic information. For example, we never see who or what keeps leaving boxes of food (including what appear to be chicken legs, unappealingly wrapped in vacuum-sealed plastic) on the couple’s doorstep. Though their “son” grows at an alarming rate (eventually he seems to be his adoptive parents’ age, if not slightly older), we don’t witness his physical transformations. And what’s with their television, which only plays ever-shifting, black and white geometric patterns? Are they secret messages to the child from Yonder’s creators? Who made Yonder, anyway, and why?
Shanley seems to understand that pondering such questions is far more interesting than being fed the answers. Like Tom and Gemma, we are forced to succumb to this strange world’s logic. And there is a logic at play here, however unfathomable it is. The narrative developments are not weird for weirdness’ sake, and this distinction proves crucial. One walks away with the impression that everything, as early as the opening shots of birds struggling for space in an overcrowded nest, has been carefully orchestrated. I can’t wait to see what Finnegan and Shanley cook up next.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.