The phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ is a cliched statement often seen in cinema and no more so than in Vivarium, a co-production of Ireland, Belgium and Denmark led by Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg.
Beginning with an unusual sequence involving cuckoos, we are introduced to schoolteacher Gemma and her husband Tom. Both are looking at buying a house and come into contact with an odd estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris) who takes them to inspect a home on a street named Yonder where all houses look familiar and the area appears deserted. The fact that the house is no.9 may just be a coincidence given its similarity with Inside No. 9.
Before long, the estate agent vanishes and as they attempt to drive away, they realise to their puzzlement that wherever they drive to, they find themselves back at the home they inspected, effectively trapping them.
With their escape route seemingly blocked, they mysteriously find outside the home a baby who they are assigned to raise in exchange for their escape. As time progresses however and the baby rapidly ages, the surrogate family find themselves tested by a scenario that appears to have no alternative route and the psychological impact of dealing with the peculiar-acting child.
For the majority of the film, the film centres on the three and the performances of the lead actors are what the film relies on. Poots delivers a good performance as a woman whose exhaustive state is highlighted vividly alongside a sense of frustration in scenes where her attempts at calming the sometimes-unbearable child are ignored. It is a performance that much betters Eisenberg’s who at times is written to the point that it is left to Poots to provide the responsibility of acting good enough and sustain belief in the performances.
The film is perhaps at its strongest when it presents the frustrations that this unexpected and equally unwanted lifestyle has on the couple, an example being when Tom throws a bowl of cereal against a wall, aware of how the child responds when not in receipt of his favourite snack.
In hindsight with the exception of its final scene, the film is unpredictable and credit should be given for presenting overall with a film that leaves us short of correctly guessing what could come next. The problem however lies with the meaning of the film and what purposes the end product has with regards to motivation.
One cannot review the film for its flaws properly for giving the plot twists away, but when looking at how the film feels by the end, the term that fits best is anti-climactic. A certain sequence in the third act appears acceptable but does not allow to explore how things got to that and what sense of resolution it could bring.
The main issue is that for too long, the film is slow and does not present enough moments with the ability to engage. The idea of how these two can’t escape is intriguing and suggests a work that has the potential to work with its two actors clearly trusted to help with that but the story lacks in consistency. At times, small bursts of interest pop up but they are preceded by scenes that drag on or are succeeded by sequences that fail to build upon sufficiently.
The conclusion feels like a lazy way of not taking the story to a more worthy and adventurous, feeling like its halfway to something worthwhile before venturing down into its underwhelming result.
Maybe it needed more characters as the structure doesn’t feel enough with the material given or a feeling of being more daring than it is. It is convincingly acted, particularly by Poots, and it has a mild amount of interest but overall, Vivarium is a disappointing attempt at thrilling with the resources it possesses.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: **1/2