Barbarian – Review

Barbarian movie

** minor spoilers ahead ** 

There was bound to come a point where apps or technology changed the way horror movies pan out. We all have torches, maps and a world of other information in our pockets. We have the ability to call for help and, as the lead character in Zach Cregger’s Barbarian does, find a cheap place to stay (even if it doesn’t look like the best neighbourhood in Detroit).

The premise of this movie is a booking mix up through Air B’n’B. Tess (Georgina Campbell) comes to Detroit for a job interview. She arrives in the middle of the night and in a downpour. She types in the key code sent by her host and, when she finally gets into the rental property, she realises there is already someone staying there. It turns out Keith (Bill Skarsgård) rented out the exact same house for the exact same dates. Is he telling the truth? And what other secrets have driven this neighbourhood to a state of utter ruin?

The first forty minutes to an hour of Barbarian is so well executed the tension just emanates from the screen. Keith seems to be trying so hard to convince Tess that he is not a sexual predator that there’s only one way this movie can end up, right? His little acts of chivalry are surely nothing more than him playing the long game. There are a couple of jump scares – doors creaking open, strange sounds in the middle of the night and shadows cast across corridors – but they are used effectively and add to the strangeness of the situation.

The film is lit really well and there are some interesting cinematography choices – not least the aspect ratio change during the flashback. The swampy greens and hazy yellows of the opening hour really build the sense of unease that permeates Tess and Keith’s interactions.

However, that’s about as good as Barbarian gets. It is definitely a film of two halves and, whilst Georgina Campbell truly holds it all together with an impressive central performance, the plot really does fold in on itself. We get flashbacks that reveal the rental property’s devastating history; gratuitous close ups of the literal/figurative monster under the bed; a complete curveball storyline featuring Justin Long’s obnoxious TV actor, AJ.

There could have been an interesting storyline fleshed out here – about women of colour going missing or not being believed; about sexual politics; the running down of once habitable neighbourhoods. These would all have been interesting storylines in their own right; had they been allowed to be developed properly. But the problem is all of these storylines are going on at the same time and none of them feel fully fleshed out. In trying to solve this problem, so much of the dialogue becomes far too on the nose (and, in a film that felt really clever and different for the first hour or so, this is very disappointing).

Barbarian movieThat being said, the film does give us two excellent performances in Campbell and Skarsgård. The scenes between the two of them are some of the most watchable in contemporary horror. You keep waiting for Skarsgård’s Keith to suddenly erupt into a literal monster – his interpretation of the clown in It really is never too far away from your mind. Campbell is confident and forceful when she needs to be, but ultimately this is a young woman who is still finding her feet. Who is going to believe her fanciful tales of this haunted house? Certainly not the policemen who believe her to be a crack addict from the neighbourhood … Campbell plays Tess with all of this knowledge rippling off the character’s every word. It will be exciting to see where her career takes her next.

Justin Long pops up as an actor accused of sexually assaulting a colleague. It’s an odious interpretation of male privilege in the post #MeToo era. He’s an obvious villain – but therein lies the rub. It’s too obvious. His dialogue is riddled with cliches and it’s hard to really engage with him as a character. His character doesn’t really go anywhere throughout the film. We see Tess become focused and more sure of herself – she’s a survivor – but AJ remains selfish and two dimensional throughout his onscreen journey.

Barbarian is frustrating as it does feel like there is a really great, interesting movie in there somewhere. Unfortunately, it does get lost along the way as Cregger increasingly relies on more traditional horror tropes and “big scares”.

Barbarian is now screening at UK cinemas.

Mary Munoz
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