Zach Cregger’s hilariously disturbing Barbarian plays out how you think it will for about a third of the runtime. It then takes a hard left and turns into something deeply hilarious, unsettlingly poignant, and rather sympathetic. None of the subject matter is easy, but I think it’s all worth taking a look at.
Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) has a problem. She’s in Detroit for a really great job interview, but the Airbnb she’s booked was also listed on HomeAway and therefore it’s been double-booked. The other resident, Keith Toshko (Bill Skarsgård) seems nice enough, but a woman alone with a strange man she doesn’t know feels like a setup for danger. She wisely doesn’t drink the tea he brews her because she didn’t see him pour it, locks all doors after she goes through them, and keeps her distance while he puts on the whole “nice guy” routine. Sure, he’s handsome and sweet, but how often is that just an act before something more sinister begins to show itself?
This is not that movie.
While initially set up as a well-executed but obvious film about the power dynamics between men and women, Barbarian instead takes time to hopscotch its way into being a more clever and surprising film about them. While Skarsgård and Campbell are trying to figure out if their interaction is upsetting or flirtatious (their chemistry sells this well enough that the script doesn’t have to), other machinations are already in motion to turn this film for the worst. Justin Long features heavily in the film’s marketing, and by the time he shows up we already think we know what kind of film this is. Skarsgård gets to show a gentleness we haven’t gotten to see from him in some time, while Campbell utilizes a lot of the same tricks she showed off in Broadchurch. It’s Long, though, that brings the dark humor to what could have otherwise been a very standard bit of horror.
Let’s talk about blocking. Choreographing a scene can be quite difficult to pull off with this kind of perfection. The film changes styles around the halfway mark, with the earlier shots being constructed as if to invoke a classic 70s horror film. All angles are pre-determined (and I suspect the sets are completely constructed around a couple of absolutely gorgeous shots), all movements of the actors are designed to feel like a dance, and even the placement of light feels so meticulously thought-out. Barbarian is a slick-looking movie, and its design is part of the charm that draws the audience in.
I can’t say too much more on this one or I’ll give away some important details. Cregger knows what he’s doing, that’s for damn sure, and he’s managed to deliver a white-knuckling ride that doesn’t let up until the credits have already begun to roll. Once in a while, we get something surprising like this, and I think Barbarian might just be that sleeper hit. Lewd, cruel, hilarious, and menacing, it’ll grab onto you by the shoulders and shake you hard while you cackle at some of the absolute insanity playing out before you.