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Barbarian Review: Surprise And Delight

EDITORS' RATING: 8/10
Pros
  • Truly immersive
  • Builds upon its premise in inventive ways
  • As scary as it is hilarious
Cons
  • Could stand to expand upon its lore?

In an era where marketing a movie too often requires that the entirety of the picture be prematurely shown off in revealing trailers, being genuinely surprised by a new flick is an increasingly rare occurrence. But "Barbarian," the new film from writer-director Zach Cregger manages exactly that. The film takes a premise so simple it borders on forgettable and expands upon it in fascinating and haunting ways, with each new act building from the last into as satisfying a crescendo as this sleepy fall movie slate is likely to possess.

"Barbarian" is initially presented as a two-hander about a double Airbnb booking. Georgina Campbell plays Tess, a young woman visiting Detroit for a job interview, only to find that the house she's rented is already occupied by a random guy named Keith, played by Bill Skarsgård. Not that there's anything wrong with a base hit of a horror exercise, but sight unseen, this sounded like a movie that had enough gas to make it 85 minutes of suspense at best, something that'd be fun on Shudder or Amazon Prime buttressed by other, better movies on a pre-Halloween triple feature at home.

But "Barbarian" offers so much more. It is 100% the sort of film any interested party should go into as blind as humanly possible, not because the entire picture hinges on some last-minute game-changing twist that can be easily spoiled, but because the film's entire vibe just plays better catching the viewer off guard. So in the spirit of that, here's a fair warning: There are spoilers ahead for "Barbarian." 

Not all men

Before we reach any of the wilder elements of the film's plot, "Barbarian" is a film that smartly leverages the inherent prejudice of appearances. From the film's outset, the danger is implied not only through the suggestive score, the foreboding visual language, and the fact that the viewer knows what they're watching is squarely placed within the horror genre, but the universal truth that Bill Skarsgård is just a scary looking dude. That's not to say that if Tess got to the Airbnb and saw Jason Momoa, shirtless (perhaps oiled up with his hair in a bun) that the potential for portent would vanish. But Cregger cast Skarsgård primarily to prey upon a propensity to judge books by their sullen, haunting covers. 

The film's first act, which comprises much of what can be gleaned from the trailers, is a charmingly structured tête-à-tête between two strangers that might be having a romantic comedy meet-cute or might be a prolonged preamble to a grisly murder. "Barbarian" knows we're assuming the latter, so it lays it on thick with the former to keep us guessing for as long as we can. But leaving an audience preoccupied with the ongoing concern of whether or not Keith is secretly an axe murderer (or vampire/werewolf/alien?) lulls them into a state where something far more terrifying can enter the fray and upend everything they've witnessed thus far.

"Barbarian" goes in some wild directions, repeatedly pulling back from the micro of the initial tension between Tess and Keith to the macro of the man who owns the house they're staying in, then even further back from that to the man who owned it before him, and in some ways, still does. But in each new narrative wrinkle, Cregger never moves away from the initial push and pull of appearances. First, we wonder whether Keith is who he says he is, because of circumstance and because of his unfortunately terrifying bone structure, then we aren't sure what to make of AJ (Justin Long), a charming and friendly seeming actor accused of something heinous. 

By the time we meet Frank, played by underrated character actor Richard Brake, we see that how suspicious a surface appears shifts depending on the era. At the dawn of the Reagan era, it doesn't matter so much that Frank looks like a police sketch artist's approximation of every serial killer ever, so long as he throws his Detroit Water and Power uniform on before knocking on a stranger's door. But the film possesses a more pressing threat.

Are you my mommy?

Kudos must be given to Cregger and company for the creation of the Mother (portrayed by Matthew Patrick Davis), the film's central threat and "monster." The Mother is at once a horrific terror whose entrance into the picture provides one of this year's most stirring and shocking sequences and a truly discomfiting figure for whom audiences will feel intense sympathy. 

Horror movies with some kind of slasher or monster at the forefront usually center those villains in a way where their iconic visage is the core source of fear. But the Mother, though the largest physical threat to Tess and the rest of the cast, loses more and more of her ability to scare as the layers of her origin are peeled back, connecting even the abject horror she represents to be rooted in the evil that men do. 

But to get to that point, Cregger plumbs a variety of other fears, notably of the unknown, of the dark, and — most pointedly — of claustrophobic spaces to force the viewer deeper and deeper into what begins to feel like a bottomless well of misfortune. From the moment Tess first enters the house in the opening scenes to every step further into its basement, its underground, and into the past lives of this physical structure, "Barbarian" fills in rich details of what lies beneath the surface of these suspicious inklings. 

Cregger, who initially rose to prominence as part of the "The Whitest Kids U' Know" sketch series employs a lot of the same storytelling tactics from his comedy days to keep the proceedings along the way humorous and entertaining, to make the darkness being explored a little more palatable and a lot less heady. The film's sense of humor also makes the themes being delved into not feel as self-serious or self-satisfied as other "elevated horror" flicks with similar ideas tend to be in execution.

What could have easily been a straightforward thriller between two strangers, or even still, a run-of-the-mill monster movie featuring a nebulous killer becomes something more fascinating. "Barbarian" is a thrilling, charming, and altogether shocking horror venture. More movies released in the post-summer dump space should overachieve the way this film does. Audiences would be better off for it.