Barbarian (2022) Review
Barbarian was directed and written by Zach Cregger (The Whitest Kids U Know, Miss March) and stars Georgina Campbell (Wildcat, Krypton), Bill Skarsgard (Eternals, Hemlock Grove), Justin Long (The Wave, Drag Me to Hell), Richard Brake (Vesper, Doom), and Matthew Patrick Davis (I Am Seed, Throwing Shade). It’s about the double-booked renters of an Airbnb discovering and dealing with its occupants – known and unknown.
The Plot: Genre entertainment doesn’t require a reinvention of formula, and Barbarian adheres to that sentiment; though the script wants to throw in a little something extra in the form of societal stems and past events knotting the narrative to wrap it up nicely, it only ends up hindering itself.
What could possibly be worse than going to Detroit? Arriving and getting stuck there, which is exactly what happens to Tess (a solid Campbell) when she checks in to her Airbnb only to find it already occupied by Keith (Skarsgard, stealing the film) and the owner unresponsive. Cregger does well with creating the awkwardness of his setup, with apprehension understandably keeping the film even-tempered, for a time. Before long, unease corrupts the house and the two wander into the basement to find a labyrinthine series of tunnels, which houses something (else) that shouldn’t be – “The Mother” (Davis) – a creature whose distinctions I won’t reveal.
Instead of sticking to one developing thread, Barbarian skips forward by two weeks and introduces AJ (Long, doing his best to humanize a cutout character), the returning owner of the property, while also flashing back to the original owner, Frank (Brake) to give a comprehensive history of the location and the mysteries it hides. The pieces don’t always fit organically into each other, as key details let later reveals slip out before they’re due, and contrivances pop up to make sure the audience gets the picture.
A sound start holds up Barbarian for its first 40 minutes but can’t make up for the steps that it takes past the line of suspension of disbelief from its newly introduced sources.
The Characters: Two-thirds of the main characters are very good, humanistic depictions of various fears and struggles, but again, the latter half injects idiocy in their foundations (pun if you want it) and brings parody personified into the cast.
Tess is out to follow her dreams of becoming a filmmaker, and with the potential shadowing of a documentarian right around the corner, things seem positive. However, it’s the surprise of the situation that enlightens the character, as her cautiousness of society – and of Keith – gets at odds with her optimism for the future. There’s a whirlwind of emotions and expectations, along with some comic misfortune, that makes a fleshed-out heroine out of what could’ve been (though eventually becomes) a caricature of paranoia.
Keith, conveniently enough, has some ties to the local area in the form of its musical productions, which is the lone guarantee of his character. He’s unnerving yet charming, as his mannerisms suggest kindness and his speech projects a bit more nervousness than absolutely necessary. Together with some night terrors, Barbarian doesn’t exactly go all the way in characterizing the man, but it does offer a believable conflict of personality.
AJ is the disparate one amongst the principal cast. He’s an actor who’s just been accused of misconduct on the set, with his career longevity plummeting in mere minutes. Cregger goes overwhelmingly overboard in trying to create a secondary antagonist that’s sleazy in every sense, is villainized for vocabulary, and is only out for himself. Heroism is barely introduced as a trait, and it only makes one wonder why his introduction is so heavy-handed in the first place.
Campbell, Skarsgard, and Long do a lot of the legwork for the characters, but there’s a strongly written basis to start from, even if humanity is rapidly drained in the last hour.
The Horror: In the defense of the writer/director, setups can be sustained much easier than payoffs can be delivered. Barbarian is at its best when it focuses on psychological terror, rather than its cartoony physical elements.
Discontent between Tess and Keith builds superbly, with the two renters using two different sites to schedule their stays, and one of them may be a falsehood. Standoffishness sticks around for a while, as Keith tries to sell safety to Tess by keeping her in the house; it’s a long process, but one that creates doubts in the man’s intentions. Midnight soon arrives and Tess is disturbed from her sleep which reawakens her caution, though she seems to disregard it in mere moments. She gets locked in the basement, which toggles confusion again, but it’s at this point that Cregger tosses out the fluctuating atmosphere.
Legal and personal horrors become the focus of Barbarian’s middle section. Though decently handled, the movie never provides the same sense of doubt to AJ’s innocence that it did to the prior slow-burn suspicion arc. It’s a terrible scenario to imagine, but it would’ve been better off within its own film, as this section is periodically broken up by the actor finding belongings of his tenants, which only serves to remind the audience of the picture they’ve been yanked from experiencing.
Once the primary characters are united within the bowels of the basement, Cregger leaps into unprecedented and jarring territory. By all means, this should be a further continuation of the dramatic horror that came before, but the film throws the preceding discomfort out the window in lieu of gross-out material, as The Mother introduces various bodily fluids and generic chaos into what was at first a nerve-wracking burner.
The Technics: Despite it being the helmer’s second feature, Barbarian boasts a long list of mechanical achievements that keep it watchable even when it gets willfully stupid. By the end, there are as many missteps as there are leaps forward, but commendations are due.
What hugely assists the film is its look and feel. Sparse set dressing and subtle changes within it give the AirBnb the atmosphere of a haunted house sans the supernatural. Zach Kuperstein’s (Out of Print, Model) smoothly gliding cinematography and terrific usage of camera focusing does wonders when paired with the setting, keeping every in-frame movement visible but subdued. It’s not all positive though, as an overreliance on sound cues dulls the quiet edge of the film’s ambiance. Anna Drubich’s (Fear Street: Part One – 1994, Werewolves Within) score is mostly solid too, but the director doesn’t know when to quit, as he continues to let the immersive qualities of Barbarian do the work.
By the time the film reaches its end, the director has all but undone his fine setup and direction. The comedic elements eventually override the horror and the logic behind the plot and characters, with both jettisoning cohesion after the first 40 minutes, and a refusal to end dragging out these issues. It’s too much of the good and the bad, though this is no fault of editor Joe Murphy (We Summon the Darkness, Zeroville), who keeps the movie snappy to the best of his ability.
Barbarian is by no means an awful genre film – it’s just one whose director forgets what genre it’s supposed to be, as competing desires do damage to a film that at first had a strong message and narrative.