The horror movie Barbarian it is best approached by an audience that knows as little as possible about it. The film’s trailer hypes it up to a degree that might put some viewers off: It reveals little beyond the film’s initial setup. Even in our spoiler-phobic times, keeping secrets makes sense for a horror movie — it’s just scarier if viewers don’t know what’s coming. But the true test of a well-made film comes when there are no surprises left. At the end of its 102-minute run time, with its secrets revealed, Barbarian still has so much to offer. And part of that is something for viewers to fear beyond the initial ominous portrait of the quiet terror that can lurk inside a house when two strangers are forced together on a dark and stormy night.
Written and directed by Zach Cregger (formerly of sketch comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’ Know), Barbarian it starts out simple enough. Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) arrives at an Airbnb on the outskirts of Detroit, where she discovers she’s double-booked and a man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already staying there. Stuck in a storm with no other options available and an important job interview in the morning, Tess makes the risky decision to stay the night.
[Ed note: While this review preserves most of the movie’s surprises, some minor setup spoilers follow.]
Tess is a great modern horror movie protagonist — doe-eyed but not naive, a guarded but kind young woman who just wants to get a good job and get back from wherever she is. Her bad decisions—the kind every horror protagonist must make, from staying at home to exploring its depths—mostly come from her kindness and desire to think the best of others.
Keith, to his credit, knows what this all looks like. He’s smart enough to know that Tess has no reason to trust him and every reason to expect the worst. And she tries to improve that awareness by doing everything she can to make sure she’s as comfortable as possible. However, there is nothing he can do. the weight and history of too many women being threatened by too many men hangs heavy in a situation like this and casts a shadow over Barbarian as a whole. Although Keith constantly tries to put Tess at ease, she – and the audience – can never really trust him. (Even if Skarsgård without makeup is unrecognizable as the man who played Pennywise in the recent The movies, the unsettling energy is still there, and it’s put to good use.)
Here is where Barbarian begins: as a suspenseful story about two strangers forced to ride out a storm together, told from the perspective of a woman who must constantly worry that the man she shares a house with is dangerous. Even with the modern Airbnb spin, this is classic horror material, enough to support a quick and dirty exploitation film. But Kreger simply uses the premise as a basis for something more ambitious, delivering a lean, surprising film with effective thrills while also giving viewers plenty to think about afterward.
No filmmaker makes any decision lightly, but every creative choice is made within Barbarian it’s surprisingly well-calibrated in a way that rewards close viewing while also not detracting from a more casual thrill-seeking experience. From its Detroit setting—arbitrary at first, but eventually given reasons beyond aesthetic decadence—to the divide of the sharing economy that gives the film its initial premise, there’s a methodical execution of set-up and subversion that’s subtle enough to to move away from what viewers would expect. However, it is never this dramatic Barbarian it ends in a wildly different place from where it started.
This is the film’s greatest strength: For all its twists and turns, Barbarian it’s more a film about reframing what’s on screen than big revelations. His script never draws attention to this dynamic, but constantly plays with the viewer’s sympathies. It quietly asks questions, prompting the audience to defend their cases at every turn. Is Tess in danger from Keith? Are they both in danger from home? If it is, whose fault is it? Does it matter if you think they are good people? Is your gendered view of the world skewing your perception?
BarbarianIts visual simplicity gives the mind the freedom to wander. The Airbnb house that Tess and Keith are in is blurry and dim. With a little grace and imagination, the house doesn’t even seem so bad — but why would someone watching a horror movie be so kind? Especially when presented with the familiar iconography it hides, from a seemingly endless dark tunnel to a room that looks like something horrible happened there.
These are familiar images and Barbarian he uses them as fuel for speculation that fills the first viewing with dread and orients further viewings around the characters. While Tess, Keith, and the few others they meet are archetypal, they are not blank slates in a limitless nightmarish city. They’re characters who visit Detroit for a reason, and the history of that city—and its late-20th-century turn toward decay as it was abandoned by a wealthy white community that could no longer shape it into its idyllic vision of the middle class — is an unspoken weight on the film and its horror. Like Skarsgård and Campbell, who deftly convey the quiet shifts in energy of a scene with the smallest of facial expressions, Cregger’s camerawork reminds viewers BarbarianHis scenery with small, careful shifts, gesturing the whole of a part by looking carefully at a narrow slice.
Here is where Barbarian overcomes its secrets. Revolving stories are hard to calibrate. Knowing that a movie has one or more hard left turns coming can create expectations, which are often rooted more in what the individual viewer wants than in the ultimate goals of the storytellers. BarbarianHis changes, thankfully, are more subtle and terrifying. As the film delves deeper into the house in which it begins, its best trick is one of the oldest in cinema. Kreger makes sure your biggest fears are in your head and what you might learn about where your sympathies ultimately lie.
Barbarian opens in theaters on September 9.