By George Bate and Josh Reilly B.
It’s near impossible to avoid promotional footage for movies nowadays. Viewers are inundated with endless advertisements, trailers, posters, featurettes, reviews, and interviews that, unfortunately, often reveal too much and ultimately detract from a give movie. Often times, the experience is heightened if one can go into the movie knowing as little as possible. This statement holds particularly true for certain movies, including Barbarian, a new horror film from 20th Century Studios and writer/director Zach Cregger. That is to say – avoid knowing anything about Barbarian before heading in (yes, that even means bookmarking and coming back to this review after you’ve seen the movie).
Still here? Maybe you watched the movie and returned. Or, maybe you just can’t help but keep reading.
Barbarian stars Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, and Justin Long and is directed by Zach Cregger from a script he wrote. The film follows Tess (played by Campbell) and Keith (played by Skarsgård), who are stuck together in an odd situation when they find out that they both have an Airbnb booked for the same nights. What could be the kick off a romantic comedy instead sets the stage for a wonderfully crafted horror film unafraid to take its time and entirely unpredictable from scene to scene.
This last statement is not an exaggeration. From scene to scene, Barbarian is strikingly unpredictable. The filmmakers never give the audience a comfort or safety in knowing even the general premise. Five minutes into Halloween and it’s clear what the film is about – patient who escapes from a mental health hospital is on the run and killing people. Five minutes into Saw and it’s clear what the film is about – two men trapped in a room try to escape. And yet with Barbarian, even when introduced to the barebones idea of ‘an Airbnb horror movie,’ it’s difficult for an audience member to really get a firm grasp on where it’s going. This makes for an extraordinarily immersive movie-going venture, particularly for a horror movie. You, as the viewer, sit down and simply must take in scene after scene for quite a substantial chunk of the film’s runtime before the plot becomes clearer. In turn, it’s difficult to watch Barbarian without noticing you’ve held your breath for a few moments too long. Like our lead characters, the audience doesn’t know what’s next or even what the source of the ‘horror’ is in this horror film, making the anticipation for every twist and turn so much fun.
Barbarian also excels as a piece of contained and suspenseful filmmaking. The vast majority of the film is set in the Airbnb and secrets are unveiled about the home slowly but surely as the film progresses. Director Cregger and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein make excellent use of the confined space here. Collectively, they manage to quickly lay out the geography of the house in a way that further immerses the audience into the experiences of the lead characters.
Similarly captivating are the three lead performances. A particular highlight is Bill Skarsgård, known to horror fans for his role as Pennywise in the It films. Skarsgård brings a very different, yet similarly superb performance to Barbarian. Campbell’s character Tess is the audience’s entry point into the story, as we follow her as she approaches the Airbnb, which, surprisingly, is also housing Skarsgård’s character Keith. Why is Keith here? Is Keith a bad guy? How the film answers these questions and where the narrative goes from there is diving too deeply into the story to still preserve all the twists and turns. But, the performances of the lead actors, in particular Skarsgård, play a massive role in how unpredictable the film is from moment to moment.
Georgina Campbell and Justin Long round out the cast as Tess and AJ respectively. Tess is in the neighborhood for a job interview, while AJ plays an actor who also makes his way into the house during the film. Campbell captures the visceral experience of assessing the danger of her situation so well. Even when the dialogue isn’t explicit, the mental gymnastics and internal risk assessment of this unusual situation by Tess feel so genuine and disturbingly relevant and realistic, especially for a woman.
Meanwhile, Justin Long’s inclusion in the film as AJ serves very different purposes in terms of story and tone. AJ isn’t a likable character. He’s loud, he’s arrogant, he uses homophobic slurs, and has been accused of raping a co-star. He enters the film at a very different point than Campbell and Skarsgård’s characters in that the audience knows a lot more about the story, and the horror of the story, at this point. In an absurdly funny, shouting at the screen saying, “Don’t go into that room!” sort of way, Long’s introduction marks a shift in tone in which the horror is surprisingly accompanied with a dark, morbid sense of humor. Barbarian is never what it seems and the fact that dives into laugh out loud comedy at points, once again, emphasizes that.
As with any mystery, thriller, or horror film, the journey is often better than the destination. In other terms, if intrigue and suspense are some of the film’s greatest strengths, providing the audience with answers undoubtedly weakens some of this intrigue and suspense. This isn’t a negative per se, as Barbarian offers very satisfying and coherent answers to the questions it poses. Fans of more abstract horror in which the audience is left guessing as to what actually happened or what is the deeper meaning may leave somewhat disappointed at the culmination of Barbarian’s storytelling.
Barbarian is one of 2022’s must see horror films and a film that most definitely should be experienced knowing as little as possible heading in. Director Zach Cregger crafts a wildly unpredictable film with seemingly every scene featuring some kind of twist or turn. This fosters an immersive, visceral experience as audiences will wait with baited breath from moment to moment as they try to even get a slight grasp of what the movie is about and where it’s going. Sporting lead performances that beautifully play into this sense of moment-to-moment unpredictability, and a surprising shift in tone as well, Barbarian excels in every department and is the kind of original, inspired horror filmmaking that makes going to the movies so much fun.