Few films in recent memory are as shocking as Barbarian. Much has been made about the story’s shocking twist and for good reason. Please go see this film in theaters before someone spoils it for you, and if you’ve already seen it, don’t you dare spoil it for anyone else. With a simple premise, writer/director Zach Cregger manages to infuse terror, horror, disgust, paranoia, and even joy into a relatively straightforward story. It’s so rare that a horror film can deliver on the promise of “shocking,” but Barbarian manages to live up to the hype and I spent the last hour of the film alternately grinning and picking my jaw up off of the floor. Is the story itself slightly far fetched and possibly even ridiculous? Maybe. But Cregger wisely avoids leaning too heavily on logic, giving us just enough to be horrified then abruptly sending us in a different, but just as disturbing direction. With a seemingly endless series of twists and turns, each as dark as the cavernous hallway at its center, Barbarian manages to be both a terrifying mystery and one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of the year.
Having traveled to Detroit for a promising job interview, Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her AirBnB in the middle of a late night thunderstorm. Standing on the rainy front porch, she realizes that someone else has rented the property from another app and beaten her to check-in. Kieth (Bill Skarsgård) welcomes her in out of the storm while they figure out what to do. The two attractive singles resolve to make the best of an awkward situation and end up enjoying the evening over a bottle of wine. It’s a Meet Cute story for the ages. But in the wee hours of the morning, Tess wakes up to find her bedroom door ajar. Keith, asleep on the couch, swears he didn’t open it and it seems that something may be amiss in the mildly pleasant bungalow. The next day, Tess finds herself locked in the basement and stumbles upon a secret door hidden in the wall. This passageway leads to an extensive system of dark passageways deep underneath the house leading to … well suffice to say, what lies beneath this unassuming house is a nightmare many years in the making.
The first act of Barbarian plays out like a slightly creepy rom com. Tess finds herself in an awkward position with a handsome man who seems too good to be true. Though she is cautious, Keith seems to be chivalrous and does everything within his power to put her mind at ease about his intentions. Like Tess, we are lulled into a false sense of security and it’s difficult to fault her for letting her guard down. Skarsgård is wonderful in the role of a charming stranger and casting the actor most known for playing a murderous clown ads a marvelous ere of paranoia to the odd situation. Tess’s internal monologue is clear in every moment and Cregger lingers in moments where Tess goes against her better judgment inviting us to decide what we might do in the same situation. But this film is not a two-hander. The cast expands in a delightful way and to say anything more would ruin another one of the film’s most surprising moments.
In his feature film directorial debut, Creggor is seemingly having a blast with misdirection in a deceptively simple story. The ominous tone is present throughout, but just barely and it’s easy to get lost in the pleasantly neutral decor. Creggor expertly plays with darkness and scenes in the cavernous maze are some of the most tense in recent memory. Like Tess, we know we shouldn’t enter the mysterious tunnel, but also like our curious but cautious heroine, we’re desperate to know what secrets lie at the end of the maze. Creggor gives us just enough to heighten the tension, constantly drawing us further until we feel like we can’t take the pressure. When we retrace our steps at another point in the unfolding story, it’s in such an unsuspecting way that we’re caught off guard all over again. It’s a perfect example of less is more filmmaking and Creggor holds us in the palm of his hand until the final shocking moment.
Watching Barbarian, it’s difficult not to get swept away in the ride of the story. From start to finish, the film is an exciting journey that takes so many twists and turns you never get a chance to stop and think too deeply about what it all means. But social commentary abounds. There are themes of classism, police mismanagement, and the dangers of a deteriorating economy. But the overarching message exposes the ways women are dismissed, ignored, and fetishized by society. Early in the film, Tess and Keith discuss the perils of navigating the world as a woman and it’s interesting to watch this theme emerge in each act. The vague title becomes a question for the audience. Who is the barbarian of this story and what would we do if put in the same situation. How many of Tess’s experiences would we view as barbaric if given the larger context?
Barbarian will likely deepen with each subsequent watch. Many films that rest on shocking twists have little beneath the surface and grow trite and unentertaining once the novelty of their secrets wears off. But like the house at the center of the story, Barbarian contains many deep layers within its walls. Once the shock of it’s relentless twists and tunnels of terror have faded, the true meaning of the story will emerge opening the door for many uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Like the house in which it takes place, Barbarian begins as a pleasant if slightly uncomfortable story about a possible monster, but what lies beneath is a dark and twisted maze of shock after shock that grows more terrifying the further you go.
Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.