When I spoke on the phone with Jesse Eisenberg, he was preparing to drive across the country in a rented van with his wife and three-year-old son to their home in Indiana, escaping Los Angeles as the coronavirus crisis began to hit hard. There was "no plan" in place to get there.
"We're just stopping, I guess, at Walmarts? I've never driven one of these things so I guess you stop and sleep at Walmarts. That's what I've been told," the 36-year-old actor told me. Their trek would have a (hopefully) vastly different outcome than the one taken by him and his fictional wife in Vivarium, the nightmarish sci-fi horror from Irish director Lorcan Finnegan that premiered last year at Cannes and is now available on digital and on demand.
In the film, Tom (Eisenberg) and his wife Gemma (Imogen Poots) are a young couple looking to purchase their first home. When they stop into a real estate office, the creepy agent tells them about a new housing development called Yonder, painting it as the perfect suburban oasis. Tom and Gemma follow the agent to Yonder in their car to see one of the homes, where they discover the housing development to be a disturbing neighborhood where all the homes are identical and seemingly unoccupied. Tom and Gemma attempt to flee, but find it impossible, as every turn chillingly leads them back to the same house. With no choice but to live in the house, they also find a baby boy in a box on the street, and the strange, _Twilight Zone_-esque twists keep coming. They're stuck, with no end to their suburban nightmare in sight.
"These people [in _Vivarium_] appear to give people what they want: a nice house, good weather. But there's a complete absence of community and nature," explained Finnegan over the phone in early March. The film initially began as a metaphor for the housing crisis that's been overtaking Ireland, as well as millennial anxieties surrounding the typical life steps that are expected in your 30s: buying a house, having a family, settling down in the 'burbs. "We were trying to come up with a monster for our time and dig into the anxieties that young people have. Like what are they actually afraid of. They aren't really afraid of monsters and stuff; they're more afraid of their lives becoming boring. Their hopes and dreams withering away as they get trapped in lives that they hadn't expected to get trapped in," said Finnegan.
Then, everything changed. Within a week of when I spoke to Finnegan, the world shifted drastically as a result of the novel coronavirus. Suddenly, millions were being told to stay inside their homes for the foreseeable future and practice social distancing. Eisenberg was gearing up to leave the overcrowded city of Los Angeles, and co-star Imogen Poots was holed up in her home in London. And the themes in Vivarium took on a new light.
"I thought of this movie as the nightmare you would have the night before you got married or bought a house or had a child. This is kind of a fever dream of all of our unconscious fears about having a normal life," said Eisenberg, who also stars in the Resistance, a biopic on the famous French mime Marcel Marceau. "The fact that the movie is coming out now, when seeing it in the context of this surreal world we currently find ourselves in, I think it will evoke a different kind of feeling as we all enter this claustrophobic life where there's insidious fear that is mysterious as it is dangerous."
"The obvious thing is being trapped, but alongside that is [the idea of] what's your role when all the things that make you up as a person have been taken away or reassembled," said Poots. "My boyfriend and I watched A Quiet Place for the first time, and I loved it. But it was really strange watching that now because this [current situation] feels cinematic."
It's hard to argue that our real world doesn't feel a bit like a horror film, and Vivarium explores many of the realities we as a society are currently experiencing. Tom and Gemma are confined in their home, going stir crazy and counting the days of their captivity. They wake up, eat breakfast, putter around, try to find an escape route, eat more, go to bed, and do it all again the next day. They struggle mentally and physically to find a way out of their nightmare, and to even understand what is happening around them. It's dark and invisible, and a threat. It all sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it?
The couple is also forced to parent a rapidly growing child that has been insidiously placed in their care seemingly to mess with them. The child mimics their arguments in their exact voices, screams for long periods of time, and generally is upsettingly creepy. While actual parents isolated with their children may not see their offspring as parasitic kid-shaped monsters, Vivarium does touch upon the exhaustion and frustration of being inside all day with a tiny tyrant.
"Once again, it feels surreal to think about it now, because I'm cooped up in a car with my own kid who I don't view that way, thank goodness. But it certainly puts everyone on edge," said Eisenberg.
Maybe watching Vivarium and seeing a dramatized reflection of ourselves, stuck in our homes, possibly with our screaming children, might be a valuable form of exposure therapy. And, if Finnegan gets what he wants, we'll all be "traumatized forever" by the story, which will lead us to become better people.
"Hopefully it lingers and makes [people] think about how we are living our lives," he said. "There's always the impression, if you're optimistic, that things are changing. I'm an optimistic type. I think things will improve. Then we can watch movies that make us think about these things and change for the better."