I’d estimate that of the 500-plus films I watch in a given year, it’s fairly easy to predict how 85 percent of them are going to end (or at least see clearly the path any given film will take), even the great ones. Being predictable isn’t always a bad thing, but as someone whose job it is to engage with that many movies per year on a critical level, it’s sometimes difficult not to tune out a little bit as a film goes on simply because I already know where things are going. My real point here is that any film whose ending or journey I don’t see coming gets bonus points in my book simply for putting in the effort to be creative and unpredictable, even if the movie as a whole is only fair-to-middling. Welcome to writer/director Zach Cregger’s (Miss March) Barbarian, a film that starts out seemingly simple but branches out in ways I could not have anticipated and, in some instances, I truly admire.
As the movie opens, 20-something Tess (Georgina Campbell, from Broadchurch and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) arrives at her rented house in Detroit during a torrential downpour. She has a job interview the next morning for what could potentially become her dream job, and all she wants is to get into the house and pass out. But when she opens the lockbox where the key is supposed to be, the key is missing. More shockingly, there’s someone else already occupying the quaint house. Fortunately, Keith (Bill Skarsgård, Pennywise from the It movies) seems like a decent fellow, and he lets her share the space with him. It turns out the two have a few more things in common (mostly regarding Tess’s new job) than either might have imagined, so they talk and drink and eventually say goodnight. Barbarian has a few little scares here and there, most of which are simply achieved with misdirection and the possibility of something else occupying the space.
We follow Tess to her job interview in downtown Detroit, but she notices that other than their fixed-up crib, the rest of the neighborhood is a ghost town with condemned houses up and down the block. It isn’t until the end of Barbarian that you realize how little these early scenes matter, other than setting up the characters and basically backing into the horror movie elements without you realizing it. In exploring the house upon her return, Tess accidentally locks herself into a storage closet that has a secret door leading further down under the house. The few things she finds down there give her the creeps, including a stark, dingy white room with a stained mattress and an old-school video camera. The way director Cregger films these underground passages, revealing not too much until it is, is exceptionally creepy and results in big, well-earned scares. Tess eventually gets out, Keith returns, and then he decides he wants to see what has freaked her out so much, and that’s when the fun really begins.
Then the film jumps to an entirely different storyline, involving a television director named AJ (Justin Long), driving in his snazzy convertible along the Pacific Ocean, when he gets an unexpected call from the showrunners of his latest pilot, informing him that the lead female actor of the series he thinks he’s set to work on for the foreseeable future is accusing him of sexual assault. He’s stunned by the accusation, which he denies, but this call is effectively his being fired from the show. We follow his post-accusation life for a bit, including an awkward meeting with his business manager, and he decides to return to his hometown of Detroit to sell off some properties he owns there to pay for his forthcoming legal bills. It just so happens that one of his properties is the house that Tess and Keith are currently sharing, and when he arrives, he finds evidence that people are staying there. Before long, AJ is also pulled into the nightmare scenario below the house, which also includes a room in which a video about nursing one’s child is playing on a loop. Before AJ’s first segment ends, we finally see the naked and twisted figure who seems to be running this hellscape, and she is not happy.
Then we get one more jump, this one in time, back to the Reagan-era 1980s, where we meet Frank (Richard Brake, the Night King from Game of Thrones), who also lived in this particular home back when the neighborhood was a bit more hospitable. Unfortunately, Frank is also the one responsible for the disappearances of several women over many years, all of whom are featured on a series of videotapes in the aforementioned crudely dug sub-basement. This isn’t the last we see of Frank, but it is the only time we see him young and healthy.
Before long, Barbarian’s many threads are brought together cleverly, and everything eventually makes sense. Even still, once these strings were tied, I still wasn’t sure where this truly deviant story was taking us. The film isn’t afraid to get graphic, but it also isn’t afraid for you to feel a sense of curiosity and empathy for its basement dwellers, and that might be the biggest shock of all. Who is the bigger monster, the accused rapist in denial about his crimes, or a malformed creature simply doing what she’s been taught to do for decades, even if it does sometimes involve killing?
There’s a strange sequence involving Tess and two Detroit police officers that seems like it’s from another movie and acts as more of a commentary about police than anything in this story. I actually like the scene but am confused as to what it’s doing in this film. Barbarian’s all-over-the-place structure is simultaneously its greatest strength and ultimately an element of why it doesn’t entirely work. It’s never confusing but it is unfocused and doesn’t give us a clean entry point into the horror of it all.
That being said, the performances are uniformly strong, especially from Campbell and Long, and if this is the direction Cregger is going now (he comes from a comedy background), I’m really eager to see what he does moving forward. He actually got me involved in these characters’ lives before he started terrorizing them, and that makes a big difference in creating effective horror. And while this movie may not be great, it is frequently effective.
Barbarian is now playing in theaters.
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