December 15, 2022 Barbarian (Movie Review)
Initially released in theaters in the U.S. on September 9th, as well as for a digital download and streaming on HBO Max beginning on October 25th, Barbarian is the feature film writing and directorial debut of Zach Cregger. A film that had several release date changes, it is one of 2022’s most commercially successful Horror Thrillers. So, how good is it?
The story starts not with an old cliché of Horror such as a cabin in the woods or a derelict mansion, but something many people today have dealt with; a double-booked Airbnb. The protagonist, Tess (Georgina Campbell: Black Mirror series, All My Friends Hate Me 2021) is a young career woman who is in Detroit for a job interview. Problem is that the house she rented is already occupied, is in a run-down area of the city that looks straight out of RoboCop (1987), and the other occupant is a man named Keith(Bill Skarsgård: It 2017, Hemlock Grove series). The house itself is in curiously good condition amid the squalor of every other house in the neighborhood.
One of the things Barbarian does so well is drawing the viewer into Tess’ situation and highlighting the potential danger she can be in, in several ways. She’s a lone woman, in what is clearly a terrible neighborhood, and her only possible lifeline is a stranger; a physically imposing man pushing six-and-a-half feet tall. These elements aren’t over-emphasized, rather allowed to exist on the peripherals of the singular-focused Tess, who navigates these hazards, real and potential, with careful poise. It’s an excellent example of show not tell, and the performances of Campbell and Skarsgård are especially good during this opening act. Keith is a nice guy, and understands how Tess feels amid her circumstances. Tess herself is not naïve at all, and after correctly discerning that Keith is alright, they learn to enjoy each other’s company in a believable way. Soon after, Tess discovers a hidden door in the basement, which leads to a subterranean tunnel, and that’s where the real story begins.
The other main character of the film is AJ, played by Justin Long (Jeepers Creepers 2001, Tusk 2014). AJ is an actor who is in the midst of a career-ending scandal, a rape accusation from a fellow actor, and we meet him while on his tailspin panic on how to save his reputation with as much of his wealth intact. After some further bad news from his agent, he retreats to a house he owns on the outskirts of Detroit – the same one Tess and Keith rented. AJ is somehow unaware of the hidden door Tess finds, and comes home to a situation he couldn’t have possibly imagined would be worse than his current one. Long has built up quite a reputation in the Horror genre for over twenty years now, and is great at playing characters like AJ; dripping with sleaze and dishonesty, and is able to make audiences hate him almost on sight.
The problem is not in any of the characters, it’s that it never totally recovers from the major changes after the basement is discovered. Tess and Keith’s rapport after she warms up to him is halted in favor of another, less interesting dynamic between her, AJ, and the mystery of the story, which unsurprisingly turns out to be very dangerous. AJ is an excellent character as far as the aforementioned traits go, and the more we learn about him the more we believe the accusations against him are true, but there’s something about the turn of events that doesn’t quite fit. These do not feel like two halves of the same whole, and while the scares and tension are effective throughout, the narrative shift and later revelations are awkward and lack the cohesion of the opening half.
In all, Barbarian is a film that effectively lures its audience into its mysteries, but does not hold them together as a cohesive story as well as it ought to. It is memorable for well-executed, simmering tension, solid performances, and mostly well plotted thrills, but is perhaps a bit too subversive for its own good. Still, Barbarian serves up a lot of what Horror fans like, and is genuinely thrilling. The casting of Bill Skarsgård was a nice move considering everyone knows him as Pennywise now. Campbell is also very good; Tess is nobody’s fool but still vulnerable in practical ways. It would have been interesting to see where she went had the story gone in a different direction.
Though imperfect, Barbarian is still worth your time as a Horror fan and is one of the memorable Horror films of this year. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives this film 3.5 out of 5 stars.