“I don’t know what the protocol is for something like this.”
Sometimes you watch a film and just know from the opening sequence – so long as the wheels don’t fall off by the ending – that you’re in for something special and inspired. In Barbarian, rain pours down and faint screams infiltrate the background as the camera lingers on a seemingly little yet well kept home with a single porch light. The audible screams grow louder until they cut out and the camera dives inside a car. Tess (Georgina Campbell) has pulled up for a stay in the rental home she booked online a month ago. But the key is missing from the lockbox, phone calls go to voicemail, and the rain becomes a minor deluge on this dark Detroit street. Then a light turns on inside. She’s surrounded by the black of night and turns towards the only light in sight, despite how uninviting it might seem. She rings the doorbell like a customer desperate to be helped before closing time.
Barbarian is the type of secret best kept under wraps, its plot and most of its human elements placed in the ice chest to save risking spoilage or wasting what amounts to a wild moviegoing experience. It’s safe to say that the film is carefully constructed in three distinct acts, all with different tones and underlying meanings. I don’t mind bringing up Keith (Bill Skarsgård), the man who opens the door to Tess, or saying that his awkwardness is perfectly executed. We never know if he’s a creepy manipulator or a kind introvert, and Skarsgård’s delivery of the line “do I look like a monster?” is brilliantly cheeky given his Pennywise fame. By the time the story gets to the actor AJ (Justin Long), facing legal ruin and needing to secure some steady cash flow, all of the divergent storylines blend together into one undulating yet cohesive picture. What starts soft earns the title by the end.
Proof that you can do a lot with a little, Barbarian carefully captures sets and ominous stairwells to emphasize dread and the unknown, constantly toying with how the light and the dark gel as cleanly as oil and water. The acting is great all around, especially from Campbell as the hopeful final girl in this horror endeavor. I’ve never seen her before, but with the buzz this movie has rightfully gotten, I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot of her to come; it’s the kind of devoted performance you not only watch but also experience because she seems so terrified and so resourceful in equal measure. Barbarian spends so much time developing Tess and building up her sense of instability and fear that we can’t help but care about her, wishing that she’d just leave and never come back. But that’s not her character either. Motivation is always a driving force in this fable.
While the rabbit hole that this film moves through and often playfully falls down isn’t all that surprising, I can’t say that I’ve seen a movie quite like Barbarian in recent years. It’s smart, topical, part of the current cultural zeitgeist but also familiar to the point that it can be used as an old and aseptic needle to stick the same generational vein. Writer/director Zach Cregger has made something incredibly dark, dryly comedic, and somehow tonally pitch perfect. With writing this willing to tackle gender norms and to engage in the monstrous behavior of men, alongside some inspired direction and editing, Barbarian pirouettes with grace and only peaks when it piques the viewer’s interest. Good thing it finds poise and strength in rationality, and that those are held through the end and the credits.
“People can have different versions of the same thing.”
Rating: 4 out of 5