It is very rare that a movie surprises me. Rarer still is a horror movie that surprises. Barbarian surprised me at least twice and left me breathless on multiple occasions. We’re not talking jump scares – though there are plenty of those – or just general weirdness (though it is a deeply weird movie). Barbarian surprised me in ways that supplanted my expectations. In the best possible ways. That it doesn’t quite stick its ending, and that its Horror was a little too much for me, doesn’t change the fact that this is exactly the kind of horror movie I love to see.
It is also a movie that truly is best seen completely cold, so I will do my best to remain vague and spoiler free.
Tess (Georgina Campbell) travels to Detroit for a job interview. She books an Airbnb and arrives late at night in the pouring rain. The lockbox opens but is missing the key. The rental agency does not answer the phone. Just as she’s leaving, a man, Keith (Bill Skarsgård), opens the door. Turns out he also rented the place for the night.
Being in a strange city, in the middle of the night, during a rainstorm, finding herself stuck staying in a house with a complete stranger doesn’t exactly make Tess feel comfortable. The film has a lot of interesting things to say about the ways men and women must travel through the world in different ways to feel safe.
It also does a great job of building tension around this situation. We (and therefore Tess) are never quite sure whether or not Keith is a potential friend or a danger. In order to not spoil what comes next I’ll fast forward to a second story the movie tells.
But let’s just say this is a horror story.
AJ Gilbrade (Justin Long) is a working actor – not quite rich and famous yet, but he’s getting there. He’s introduced driving a convertible down an ocean-side highway singing along to Donovan’s “Riki Tiki Tavi.” A phone calls interrupts this happy moment and he’s informed that his costar on his upcoming television series has accused him of sexual misconduct.
Losing that job and basically becoming untouchable to everyone else, AJ realizes he needs to liquidate some things fast in order to have the money to live on while things get sorted. Queue him traveling to Detroit to sell one of his rental properties.
Guess which house is his?
The two stories intersect but again it goes in directions I was not expecting at all.
Justin Long is a likable actor and we naturally assume that his declarations of innocence over the misconduct allegations are true. The film teases out what actually happened in some really interesting ways, and makes some comparisons to…well, again I don’t want to spoil anything.
I’ll say no more about the plot. Writer/director Zach Cregger has created a most interesting story and found ways to interject something new into some pretty familiar-sounding horror tropes. As a director, he creates a good sense of space and an eerie sense of mood and creeping horror.
The jump scares mostly worked on me but they were the least interesting aspects of the film. Likewise, the actual horror parts of the film, by which I mean the more atypical scary parts of the movie (sorry, I do want to be vague and that makes it difficult to say what I mean just here) were a little too over the top for my tastes. But otherwise I completely fell for this film.