Vivarium (2020)

In some ways, I’m a little bummed that I didn’t have the chance to see the absurdist sci-fi chiller Vivarium on the big screen (due to this year’s ongoing COVID-19 closures). Not only is the theatrical environment my preferred way of experiencing any movie for the first time, but I suspect this film’s discomforting twists & turns would have been especially fun with a gasping crowd. At the same time, discovering this film alone at home might have been a blessing. Watching it in public almost certainly would have been one of those cringy experiences where I’m the only person in the room laughing at a film’s dark, peculiar sense of humor, and it’s probably for the best that I spared fellow theater-goers that annoyance. I knew this film was going to be grim & abrasive; I just didn’t expect that it was going to be so funny. It has a very cruel but highly successful sense of humor to it (almost exclusively about resenting your own spouse & child).

Imogen Poots & Jesse Eisenberg costar as a young couple in search of a suburban starter home to begin their life together, only to get trapped in a hellishly bland eternity of supernatural imprisonment in that very abode. Their relationship here, while explicitly romantic & monogamous, is no less combative than it was when they first paired up as violent nemeses in last year’s The Art of Self-Defense. The cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood they’re trapped in is an endlessly repeating grid of identical CGI houses, resembling more of a board game or a Sims neighborhood than an irl landscape. They’re completely isolated—quarantined, if you will—in a flavorless suburban prison, interrupted only by Amazon deliveries of their daily necessities and the arrival of the world’s most annoying child, whom they are obligated to raise to adulthood. It’s all an unveiled, naked metaphor about how frustrating & unfulfilling the suburban nuclear family lifestyle can be, and it only gets ghastlier as they sink further into their excruciatingly pointless domestic routine.

I’m not surprised to discover that this film is divisive, even among horror & sci-fi nerds who’d normally be on its wavelength. The central metaphor is unashamedly blatant; the disruptive child character is 1000x more shrill & frustrating than even the kid in The Babadook; and watching a young couple become exponentially sick of each other for 97 minutes is a deliberately tough sit. All I can say is that its antiromantic misanthropy really worked for me. I was even outright delighted by it, which feels perverse to say about a film that is so relentlessly miserable in tone. Vivarium is a cartoon exaggeration of the long-simmering frustrations & resentments that accompany even the most successful of romantic partnerships. It gawks at the traditional, decades-long monogamous marriage as if it were a sideshow attraction at the county fair, amused but disgusted by the freakish unnatural behavior we’re all supposed to aspire to.

Maybe going straight to VOD this year was ultimately the perfect release strategy for this film, since months of social distancing has cranked up the heat on any & all minor annoyances couples already had simmering on the backburner in a way that should help the movie resonate with its literally captive audience. If nothing else, watching this exhausted, joyless couple stare slack-jawed at their hyperactive child as it runs screeching through their house/prison felt familiar to a COVID-specific variety of tweets where parents complain about not being able to ship their kids off to daycare for a much-needed breather. Selfishly, I’m also a little glad I was blocked from catching it on the big screen because I almost certainly would have been laughing a little too loud at the film’s cruelly antiromantic absurdism, only making the experience even more grating for my fellow moviegoers. It’s already abrasive enough without my braying contributions.

-Brandon Ledet

I Kill Giants (2018)

The 1980s saw a wealth of children’s fantasy films that were incredibly dark in theme & tone, considering their target audience. Titles like Return to Oz, The Never-Ending Story, The Dark Crystal, and Paperhosue seemed custom designed to bore parents out of the room just so they could scare children shitless as soon as they were alone with the VCR. These tonally hazy fantasy films are a little too traumatic for most kids and a little too precious for most adults, but they can generate a fascinating tension through that divide. There are plenty of modern entries into that canon keeping the tradition alive too; they just tend to be minor indie releases too few people get to see: MirrorMask, American Fable, The Hole, etc. Let’s go ahead and add I Kill Giants to the traumatic children’s fantasy movie pantheon. Remarkably similar to the recent dark fantasy drama A Monster Calls in both themes & tone, it might be tempting to pass off I Kill Giants as a lesser echo of that more accomplished work. The truth is, though, that both films are part of a larger tradition and work exceptionally well as companion pieces, especially since I Kill Giants offers a version of A Monster Calls’s dark fantasy template through a more femme POV.

Like A Wrinkle in Time, I Kill Giants is the perfect fantasy piece for gloomy middle schoolers who believe they’re fundamentally different from all the “other girls.” Truthfully, all middle school girls would probably self-identity as being Not Like Other Girls, but the giant-killing anti-hero of this film pushes that personality trait to the extreme. Dressed like a feral Louise Belcher left to run wild & dingy in the New England wilderness (bunny ears & all), our troubled protagonist finds herself at the center of a mythical battle everyone else in her small town seems to willingly ignore. Deploying homemade steampunk contraptions of her own invention (straight out of The Book of Henry), and casting spells & potions like an amateur woodland witch, she serves as a self-elected protector of her town against the impending threat of murderous giants. Since she’s an avid D&D player and a fantasy illustrator with a vivid imagination, it’s unclear if these giant CGI threats at the edge of the woods & ocean are “real.” Her obsession with their looming danger makes her hopelessly socially awkward around peers and her hexes are often interpreted by authority figures to be frivolous vandalism, but she very well may be saving those lives from the towering brutes they rationalize as “tornadoes and earthquakes and crap.” What is clear, however, is that she is using her pursuit of the giants as an excuse to avoid dealing with a mysterious trauma in her own home, the reveal of which serves as the film’s cathartic release.

Ultimately, I don’t believe I Kill Giants uses its killer-giants metaphor as a way of dealing with Death & bullying through a childhood lens quite as well as the thematically similar A Monster Calls; it certainly doesn’t have as sharply specific of a point to make about processing trauma through that device, at least. However, it does work well enough on its own terms to survive the comparison, especially once it finds its narrative grooves in the relationships our emotionally-battered protagonist establishes with her best friend, her school psychologist, and her older sister (the latter of whom are played by Zoe Saldana & Imogen Poots, respectively). If the movie needs to separate itself from J.A. Bayona’s similarly gloomy children’s literature adaptation (I Kill Giants was adapted from a 2008 graphic novel, while A Monster Calls’s own illustrated source material was published in 2011, so who cares), its existence is more than justified by reframing the story with a femme perspective and finding its emotional core in a wide range of female bonds. It’s an unnecessary distinction to have to make, though, since both films are part of a much larger dark children’s fantasy tradition. If you normally fall in love with films that hover between child’s imagination sensibilities & traumatically adult themes, you’re likely to find worthwhile qualities in either picture. If that tension is not usually your cup of genre movie tea, though, I doubt I Kill Giants will be the one to finally win you over.

-Brandon Ledet

Green Room (2016)

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With his last two features writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has carved out a nice, little niche for himself in constructing intimate, terrifying thrillers about folks who are in way over their heads (in blood & viscera). His last film, Blue Ruin, was a tightly-wound revenge thriller in which a doomed, ordinary man took on an organized criminal syndicate despite his ineptitude for violence in a private war he instigates (or avenges, depending on your perspective). His attempts at violence are ugly & disastrous, as he fucks up constantly, but the inertia of the plot doesn’t allow him any viable options but to continue on anyway. There isn’t much of a difference in Saulnier’s follow-up, The Green Room, except a change in scenery and a shift in perspective from revenge to survival in its central plot concerns. The Green Room somehow feels less special & more pared down than Blue Ruin, but it’s still an effective thriller that never loosens its chokehold on the audience’s throat throughout its runtime thanks to an increasingly limited set of options for a positive outcome for any one of its characters, protagonist or otherwise.

Fictional hardcore punk band The Ain’t Rights (featuring Burying the Ex‘s Anton Yelchin & The Final Girls‘s Alia Shawkat among its members) are struggling to make it home from a disastrous road tour, resorting to siphoning gas & camping roadside to ease their financial desperation. Keeping their punk band ethics D.I.Y. & internet presence free, the band finds themselves in the fragile situation of playing one last gig for an isolated skinhead (ne0-Nazi) community (run by a no-nonsense, ice-cold Patrick Stewart). As soon as The Ain’t Rights open their set with a cover of the Dead Kennedys’s classic diddy “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” the vulnerability of their situation becomes terrifyingly apparent & only gets worse as the plot thickens & the chokehold tightens. After their set The Ain’t Rights accidentally uncover a couple nasty secrets their racist/militaristic punk show hosts are hiding at their concert venue/compound and the situation snowballs into a total nightmare where they’re locked in a small, windowless dressing room with no hope for escape except an all-out bloodbath where the ill-prepared youngsters aren’t likely to survive. Spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with this kind of genre fare: most of them don’t.

If there’s a prevailing concern that drives every scene of The Green Room it’s authenticity. Scenes of D.I.Y. punk kids drinking beers, listening to records, getting dead serious about their biggest artistic influences during college radio interviews, and having out-of-body religious experiences while thrashing around in a mosh pit all feel true to the punk scene as I know/remember it, albeit without the stench of body odor that would seal the deal. Apparently The Thermals frontman Hutch Harris was brought in as a coach for this aspect of the film, which is about the cutest thing I’ve heard of since Deb Harry handed out “punk rock merit badges” to the Frog Scouts on The Muppet Show. I only have to assume that the skinhead scene is represented with the same level of authenticity, as I’ve thankfully had very few experiences with their presence at New Orleans D.I.Y. shows. I’d like to see a version of this kind of punk scene thriller without these white power monsters’ involvement, but the movie seems well-researched in their representation. At the very least it gives the same fetishistic attention to the various designations of their bootlace colors as Friedkin gave to the gay S&M scene’s handkerchief coding in Cruising.

The Green Room‘s authenticity doesn’t stop at its depictions of D.I.Y. punk culture, either. The violence is some of the most horrifically brutal, gruesome gore I’ve seen in a long while, not least of all because it’s treated with the real life severity that’s often missing in the cheap horror films that misuse it. Each disgusting kill hits with full force, never feeling like a frivolous indulgence, and the resulting tone is an oppressive cloud of unending dread. From the Dead Kennedys cover to the end credits my veins were pulsing so hard they felt as if they might explode. That’s a sign of a highly effective thriller, but it wasn’t necessarily a feeling I’d wish to return to at any point.

The Green Room amplifies the hopeless situation of Blue Ruin by confining its action to an extremely limited space & uping the potential number of lives at stake, but I couldn’t help but find the plight of Saulnier’s in-over-their-heads protagonists a little repetitive here. There are some truly great, small moments in the film (the religious experience in the mosh pit especially stands out), but in a larger context I felt it was mostly delivering a heart-racing sensation of fear & apprehension. It was intense in the moment, but felt like somewhat of a cheap thrill once I reached the relief of the end credits. As a genre picture I think The Green Room checks off all the right boxes & delivers everything you could ask for as an audience looking to cower & sweat. However, I’d love to see Saulnier switch gears in the future & push where else he can take that intensity/authenticity with an entirely different set of genre expectations.

-Brandon Ledet