Director: Zach Cregger
Stars: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long
Ever get the feeling that a character has been based around a pivotal decision? A plot point that begs the question, “What kind of person would do that…”?
At least one such character exists in Zach Cregger’s riotous tall tale Barbarian, for whom it seems distinctly as though Cregger started at this key late-film moment and then worked his way backwards. If this all sounds awkwardly evasive, get used to it. This is a tough flick to talk about without ruining half of the fun. I might even say, if you’re yet to see it, what’re you even doing here? Stop reading. Go on. Scram!
Still here? All right then, but I’m joining a certain chorus crowing that the less you see/read/hear about this movie the better, which makes writing 800+ words on it suddenly feel counterintuitive, but here we go anyway.
Barbarian takes aim at a lot of disparate targets. Airbnb culture, Reaganomics, class divides, #MeToo, the sad, inexorable decline of Detroit, what family means in America… On the one hand, such a broad array of intended talking points is admirable. Cregger clearly has a lot on his mind. On the other, sharper, narrower focus might’ve yielded a sharper, narrower film. But that wouldn’t have been this film…
In brief, then, meet Tess (Georgina Campbell), in Michigan for a job interview. She rocks up at her Airbnb in a rundown part of Detroit in the middle of the night. It’s raining buckets, and she can’t get inside. Seemingly thanks to a booking snafu, there’s already a tenant; the conscientious Keith (Bill Skarsgård). With the city’s hotels rammed thanks to a convention, Tess and Keith make the best of things in their temporary one-bed bungalow. But events start to suggest that they’re not alone which – inevitably – leads to the basement…
In it’s early stretches Barbarian is an impressively tight offering, utilising existing paranoia to create some nimble and economic tension. The button-push locks on the house doorknobs are zeroed in on, encouraging us to keep tabs on what’s accessible and what’s not; engendering a preoccupation with safety. Tess’ cautiousness makes real-world sense and she evidently has a smart head on her shoulders. She recalls Daniel Kaluuya’s OJ in Nope, especially at one pivotal moment where Cregger needs his protagonist to take a counterintuitive step into danger, but wryly acknowledges that he also needs to stay true to her intelligence. The piecemeal dolling of information in this stretch is masterful. Cregger positively encourages us to seek out the lies in Keith’s story, leaving just enough room for us to start our own conspiracy theories.
A surprise and a hard narrative turn becomes one of Barbarian‘s boldest moves. Cregger gets away with it because of how assuredly he bulldozers forward, but from here the film loses it’s innate claustrophobia as a direct result of widening its world. A third player enters the story; Justin Long’s obnoxious Hollywood exec AJ, and there’s fun to be had in finding out how he tessellates with the mini-drama we’ve been so pleasingly engaged with. In spite of the sharp shift, a tonal through-line persists. AJ’s world is crumbling around him; he’s about to be held accountable for a heinous crime, one that resonates all-too-clearly with Tess’ pragmatic paranoia.
This, coupled with AJ’s rampant arrogance, puts us in some strange territory – are we really supposed to root for this guy?
And so Barbarian opens up and starts to ask us what constitutes ‘good’ in the modern world. Tess we can squarely place in the ‘good’ category. That’s comfortable. But with America going to hell, what’s a reasonable response to society’s descent? What’s the difference between a reprehensible monster hidden in a pastel shirt and what lurks beneath the house at 476 Barbary Street?
As intimated, Cregger’s script throws many conversation starters our way. The first-time feature director started out with the kernel of its opening half hour and developed it’s pulpier genre elements from there. That tells in the watching, as Barbarian goes from tight to wildly ambitious. Ultimately, it doesn’t quite have the capacity for all the questions it starts asking. And that’s okay. His job isn’t to answer everything, and horror often works its magic best when we only have a slight handle on things. Still, it’s the looser thematic strings that start to look untidy in the aftermath.
In the moment, however, Barbarian works gangbusters. The hard swerves and reveals will frustrate and delight in equal measure; all designed to get viewers squirming in their seats. Cregger has confidence and clout, that’s clear. His frames are sharp, decisive, revealing. His scenes put a premium on audience engagement. Tight, focused. He enjoys the peppering of new and seemingly incongruous elements. It brings to mind the showmanship of Jordan Peele or Dan Trachtenberg (both of whom seem like key influences here). Barbarian has the energy of a short that’s spiralled manically into a feature length running time. Something to get noticed – and it has. Even if it leaves you wanting, there’s plenty here to suggest Cregger ought to be kept an eye on. Who knows where he’ll take us next.