The first thing to be said about Zach Cregger’s Barbarian is that you can’t really talk about it; to say too much about it is not just to spoil its inherent surprises but to reduce its actual power. It’s a cinematic version of Fight Club, less of an actual narrative and more akin to a Godfrey Reggio attempt at experiential manipulation.
It’s as if Cregger started with a whiteboard filled with all the most transgressive imagery he could conjure in an attempt to see how much he could manage to sneak into one film. The answer is ‘a lot’ in an assault so over the top it easily surpasses anything approaching horror and transcends to pure silliness more than once… and yet remains a consistent, unified whole even as it bounces wildly between extremes.
That is very much by design. Barbarian is not so much one story as three stories. One follows young filmmaker Tess (Georgina Campbell) as she arrives in Detroit to interview for a job while putting up with an unexpected roommate (Bill Skarsgård) at her rental who suffers from nightmares and refuses to believe her about strange cries coming from the basement of the house.
There’s also flailing actor AJ (Justin Long), who finds his career in tatters after being accused of sexual misconduct and in desperate need of cash, even if that means selling his rental properties in Detroit. And there is Frank (Richard Brake), a reserved, creepy resident of a 1980s Detroit suburb who hides kidnapped, screaming women in his home with none of his neighbors the wiser.
All of them collide in strange tunnels below decaying, present-day Detroit which hide horrors everyone seems to know about, but no one wants to do anything about. If it sounds all over the place, it sometimes feels that way.
Creeger excels at building tension incrementally, step-by-step, and then at the ultimate moment of revelation… cutting abruptly to a completely different scenario. His goal is, above all, to keep the audience off balance, and he manages that adroitly, either from complex montage or sheer outlandish reveal.
It’s the perfect mood for good horror, but it also allows him to hide the seams from viewers, including both why any of these people are doing what they’re doing and how any of the mise en scene could be put together without question. Especially the way people keep disappearing into the strange house in Detroit without anyone noticing.
Some of that is by design. Buried deep within Barbarian is a deep critique of the combination of apathy and greed that has debilitated American cities, hollowing them out into bastions of poverty and loss, crevasses human beings can fall into and become lost in without anyone bothering about them.
The juxtaposition between the destroyed neighborhood of Tess’s Detroit rental and its 1980s utopia is no accident, any more than the individuals who enable it (and its outsize horrors). The real estate company that doesn’t bat an eye at the famous movie star who strolls in any more than they do sending maids to clean up a house where renters keep disappearing isn’t an aberration or even that unbelievable.
They are the cinematic equivalent of the developers who build low-income tower housing, which burns to the ground and kills hundreds.
None of that matters once monsters start arriving from the basement to drag people to their doom. Or the bizarre and scarring ways victims are tormented by a classic baby care video. And that’s before things get really strange.
No matter how ridiculous Barbarian gets, it can’t reduce its own native power and ultimately gains from it, as the stranger it gets, the more we wonder what else it has up its sleeve. If it were just a surprise, however, there would be nothing to differentiate it from its brethren. Its commitment to keeping viewers off balance and its hidden themes of societal decay slowly but surely let us know it is definitely more than that.
BARBARIAN REVIEW SCORE: 7 OUT OF 10
From 20th Century Studios, Barbarian is now playing in theaters. The film is rated R for some strong violence and gore, disturbing material, language throughout, and nudity.
Joshua Starnes has been writing about film and the entertainment industry since 2004 and served as the President of the Houston Film Critics Society from 2012 to 2019. In 2015, he became a co-owner/publisher of Red 5 Comics and, in 2018, wrote the series “Kulipari: Dreamwalker” for Netflix. In between, he continues his lifelong quest to find THE perfect tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich combination.