Movies: Barbarian (2022)

So I’d been noticing a lot of interest and buzz surrounding the 2022 film Barbarian, which premiered at San Diego Comic-Con last summer, but I wasn’t entirely sure what the nature of the buzz was, and I hoped I’d be able to keep it that way until I actually got around to seeing the thing, because as I’ve mentioned before, I like to go into movies knowing as little about them as possible. I did have a couple of friends recommend that I see it, while thankfully not giving any specifics. And in the case of Barbarian, I’m really, really glad that I was successfully able to avoid seeing any reviews or hearing anyone’s particular opinions about it before going in, because as pretty much every person who has reviewed this movie has attested, this is one of those movies that’s much, much better if you have no idea what you’re in for before you watch it.

And I will say right here from the jump that even though I’m not going to spoil the movie here outright—it’s still playing in some theaters, and only recently arrived on HBO Max, so I understand not everyone has had a chance to see it yet—I will be trying to discuss it in a way that isn’t too explicit, but may reveal some plot details that it would be more fun not knowing beforehand. As I said, I STRONGLY recommend that you go into the film with as little foreknowledge as you can manage, but in order to talk about the movie with any degree of depth, some aspects may be inadvertently exposed. So reader and listener beware.

Incredibly, Barbarian is the product of a first-time feature writer/director, Zach Cregger, whose previous claim to fame was as one of three guys in a comedy troupe from New York City called The Whitest Kids U’ Know. While it’s inarguably true that comedy and horror are inexplicably linked—two sides of the same coin, in fact—I admit I wasn’t ready for this level of assurance in the writing and directing of Barbarian, and the near-masterful way that humor and horror were intermingled to the delightful enhancement of both. Many horror films attempt to add humor to lighten or complement the more ghastly elements of the story, of course, but few really succeed in finding that perfect balance. Barbarian gets it exactly right, a Herculean feat in itself.

That’s not to say that Barbarian is a horror comedy; far from it, in fact. It’s tense, it’s actually scary, and it’s very gruesome in places (though remarkably restrained in others; again, a great balance), but it also knows that there are times when humor is called for, and there are times when details of the plot skirt the boundaries of believability, and the movie admirably leans into this, with fantastic effect.

In short, Barbarian is easily among the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time, and it did something that lots of horror movies can’t or won’t do: it surprised me. It challenged my expectations. It went in directions I couldn’t foresee. It wasn’t afraid to subvert storytelling norms, trusting the audience to keep up. It was refreshing and fun and completely bonkers, a wild ride that literally had me on the edge of my chair, wondering exactly what was going on. It gave me vaguely the same sort of feeling as James Wan’s recent Malignant, just in terms of sheer audacity, though Barbarian is miles better than that. It’s batshit insane, but in the best possible way, and at its heart, actually had quite a bit to say, though it didn’t hit you over the head with its theming and still remembered to be an entertaining, unpredictable, frightening, and blackly funny movie experience. I can’t tell you how happy I am that this movie sort of came out of nowhere and was this great, and that it was a sleeper hit, because Barbarian was released by a major studio (20th Century Studios, as a matter of fact), and that gives me hope that we’ll see more interesting, ballsy horror films like this from new and “untested” talent. MORE LIKE THIS, PLEASE.

Anyway, the synopsis and trailer of the film were deliberately kept vague so that audiences wouldn’t know quite what to expect when they sat down to watch it, which was absolutely the right move. Basically all the description said was that the story was about a woman who rents an Airbnb, finds there’s already a guy staying there, and decides to spend the night anyway, but finds out that there’s a lot more going on than just a strange dude in her rental house. This is an accurate depiction of the first act of the film, but after that point, it takes several drastic turns, and watching it, I absolutely loved the experience of having no idea where this movie was taking me. I was initially trying to guess what was happening, but after a couple times of being wrong, I just relaxed and let the story take me on its peculiar journey.

Georgina Campbell is phenomenal as Tess, a young woman who has come to Detroit for a job interview with a local indie filmmaker. She arrives at her Airbnb in the middle of a stormy night, and despite the instructions from the property management company, she finds the key isn’t in the lockbox where it’s supposed to be. She then discovers, much to her annoyance, that there’s a man named Keith (played by Bill Skarsgård, in an ingenious bit of casting) already staying in the house who insists that he also paid to rent this place. Long story short, she rented through Airbnb, he rented through HomeAway, and apparently the house was double booked. Keith invites her in while she tries to get everything sorted out, but of course she doesn’t know this guy from Adam; it appears as though this was all an honest mistake, but who’s to know for sure? This guy could just be squatting here, or maybe he owns the house and has this whole elaborate predatory scheme to attract vulnerable women to prey on. The guy seems okay, but he’s frankly a little bit awkward, and he’s also played by Pennywise himself, so we’re inclined to be suspicious.

This whole first act is remarkably suspenseful, beautifully shot, and eerily effective. Tess is on a razor’s edge, unsure if she should trust this man but sort of stuck, as all the other nearby hotels are completely booked. One thing she says later on that really resonated with me was that had the situation here been reversed—in other words, had she already been in the house and a strange man turned up on her doorstep claiming a mix-up—there would have been absolutely no way she would have invited the man inside, much less let him stay overnight, and rightfully so. But Keith didn’t really hesitate at all to let her in, because he didn’t feel that he had anything to fear from her, a scenario that is absolutely not the same the other way around, a fact that the story utilizes quite deviously.

The conversations and interaction the two of them have in this first act are outstanding buildup, as Tess feels out the whole deal, wondering if she’s making the stupidest decision of her life. Eventually she lets her guard down, just a little, even telling Keith about a tendency to keep going back to her controlling boyfriend even though she knows she shouldn’t (a personality trait that will absolutely play into the story going forward). As she bids Keith good night, it seems like everything is all right after all.

But then she’s awakened in the middle of the night by a strange noise, and she discovers that her bedroom door, which she closed before going to sleep, is now open. Obviously, she thinks the worst has happened and her suspicions about Keith were correct, but when she goes out in the living room, she finds him asleep on the couch, seemingly in the midst of a nightmare. When she wakes him, he seems to genuinely have no idea what she’s talking about. And then we see in the background that the door to the basement appears to close by itself.

As the first act goes on, Tess gets trapped down in the basement after she goes down there to get toilet paper and the door locks behind her. She ends up finding some sketchy-ass shit that no one would want to find in the basement of a house you’re staying in. From there, more events unfold that I won’t spoil, but after this whole bit plays out, there’s actually a hard cut to what seems like a completely different movie, one starring Justin Long as a cocky, carefree actor in Los Angeles, tooling around in a convertible on a sunny day. What does this have to do with the initial story concerning Tess and Keith, you may be wondering, and why do they disappear from the narrative for the next third of the movie? Just be patient, dear watcher, because it will all come together in time, as will the other seemingly unrelated interstitials featuring a very creepy Richard Brake.

From a plotting and screenwriting standpoint, this is a master class; it absolutely does not follow the tried-and-true conventions of filmmaking—which is one of the reasons that nobody wanted to make it initially; hell, even A24 passed on it—but that’s why I found it so compelling. It wasn’t more of the same; it was doing something different, while still keeping you engaged the entire time, as you attempted to figure out what was happening and how everything was connected. I have to say too that the casting here was brilliant, and essentially used both Bill Skarsgård’s and Justin Long’s previous on-screen roles and personas as shorthand and misdirection.

The cinematography was also outstanding and worth a special mention, as it did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of visual storytelling, particularly in its interesting (and sometimes unconventional) use of light and shadow.

Although I personally found no particular flaw with the film and loved it so much I’m already anticipating a second watch, I did see a couple of reviewers bring up the minor criticism that the characters made some dumb decisions that maybe real people wouldn’t make when confronted with the same circumstances. I can see where they’re coming from, but honestly, I didn’t find anything here that was particularly egregious in that regard; for one thing, people do dumb things in horror movies sometimes in order to advance the plot, and we all let it slide because nothing would happen if someone didn’t go down and explore the scary basement, after all. But even aside from that glib excuse, I also felt that Barbarian in particular very carefully set the characters’ personalities up in such a way that their behavior made sense in context, so the decisions they made came across as believable and organic to me. Maybe they aren’t necessarily the decisions that I would have made, in other words, but other people aren’t me, and the way the character of Tess was delineated in particular acted in ways that maybe I wouldn’t have, but were still understandable from the perspective of her own values and attributes.

If this all sounds kind of vague, I apologize, but it’s also deliberate, because if you haven’t seen Barbarian, I want you to be able to experience the same crazy ride I went on with this movie. I get that it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, and some people might not like the hard plot twists this thing makes, but for me as a lifelong horror fan, I always cherish the times when I come across something that engages me as much as this movie did, that keeps me on my toes and shows me something surprising. I wish I had got off my lazy ass and gone to see it in the theater, because I’ve heard it’s an even more fun time seeing it with an audience (which I totally get), but even watching it by myself, I had a blast with it, and would recommend it unreservedly.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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