Nathan Weinbender reviews "Barbarian"
This doesn’t happen all that often anymore, but I walked into Barbarian completely cold. It’s not that I hadn’t heard any advance buzz. I’d heard a lot of it, and all of it was clear on one thing: You really, truly, absolutely had to see this thing without knowing what you were getting into.
And so I saw Barbarian on a Monday night having somehow avoided seeing any trailers or reading any reviews. I didn’t know the plot. I wasn’t even sure what actors were in it. And the movie turns out to be a lot of fun as a depraved little thrill ride that grows loopier and loopier as it gains momentum. The film isn’t just exploiting our knowledge of horror tropes in its subversions; it’s exploiting our expectations that those tropes will be subverted and subverts them again. It’s anticipating our anticipation.
Because so much of the film’s appeal is dependent on its surprises, I’ll afford you the same courtesy. I won’t spoil anything, but if you’re a horror fan and also want to see Barbarian as tabula rasa as possible, maybe turn down your volume for the next couple minutes.
On with the plot. It begins as a woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) pulls up to her Airbnb in a rainstorm. She’s in Detroit for a job interview, and the place where she’s staying seems to be the only inhabitable house on a street that otherwise looks like it recently hosted a zombie apocalypse.
Tess soon discovers that someone else has already booked the house through a different lodging app. His name is Keith and he’s played by Bill Skarsgård, and when you see the actor who played Pennywise the Clown, you’re instantly suspicious of the character’s true intentions. Keith and Tess agree to share the place for a night and hash it out with the rental companies in the morning.
And then Tess wanders into the basement, which has one of those horror movie doors that locks itself behind you. In fact, Barbarian reveals itself to be a movie about doors — the chilling implications of a door that won’t open, and of one that’s open when it should be closed.
Of course there are twists in Barbarian, and the first big one comes about an hour in. The film shifts its focus, and then shifts again, and then again. By the time we’ve reached the final half hour, which is full of blood and sweat and general mayhem, we’ve almost forgotten where we started. Barbarian was written and directed by Zach Cregger, best known as a member of the comedy troupe the Whitest Kids U’Know; he and Jordan Peele are proving that the art of the comic sketch and the art of the intriguing horror concept are perhaps one and the same.
All the way through Cregger’s film, I was reminded of the 2016 sleeper hit Don’t Breathe: Both films are (I think) stylish, dark allegories for the erosion of the American working class, and both descend literally and figuratively into subterranean realms, abandoning all pretenses of good taste on the ground floor.
Like Don’t Breathe, the outlandish final act of Barbarian doesn’t quite live up to the deliriously mounting dread of its first half. In a movie filled with long, dark corridors, the plot itself is its own kind of corridor that we creep down, ever so slowly, and the film relishes in prolonging our anxiety as it heads toward its ludicrous destination.
Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.