“So, what’s it about?” you might ask a friend who has seen Barbarian, the debut horror movie from writer/director Zach Cregger. “Ooo, I can’t tell you,” they’d reply, “just watch it”.
This is true, but also makes writing a review difficult. The smarty pants urge to drop in minor hints that would make sense later is a strong one, especially given how XXXX then changes to be more XXXX so that XXXX is more of an XXXX than an XXXX.
What Is Barbarian About?
Ok, here goes. Barbarian is a horror movie in which a young woman travels far for a job interview.
Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) arrives at the Airbnb she’s booked for the night only to find that the key isn’t in the lockbox, and that a man called Keith (Bill Skarsgård, Clark) is already staying there, having booked the house through a different provider.
The rain is torrential, it’s late at night, and Tess is stuck in a bind. She takes Keith up on his suggestion to come inside so they can try to sort out the screw up.
Cregger designs these early scenes to be laden with an undercurrent of suspense. Something not helped by Tess’ interviewer acting with genuine concern when she learns the area where Tess is staying.
Campbell embodies every woman for whom instinct and rationalisation are internally duking it out. We are already primed for this subconsciously, thanks to a slow zoom shot scored with discordant human voices that build to a crescendo only to drop to silence once the camera enters Tess’ car.
The house is as much a character as those lodged inside it. Unexplained noises are put to good use with smart camera work to make you doubt yourself; there is something intrinsically creepy about doors simply being open or shut without any sight of how they transitioned from one state to the other.
Barbarian pulls off a great feat by inexorably ramping up the tension but also ensuring that our stress levels don’t boil over and extinguish the flames of enjoyment.
As more is discovered about what is happening, Cregger wisely pulls the action back at key moments. This firstly allows more context to be woven in, and secondly means that when events do build back up again the tension is all the higher as we know what’s coming.
Barbarian Official Trailer
Is Barbarian Worth Watching?
Both Campbell and Skarsgård are outstanding here. They bring their characters to life in the detail of their body language and dialogue delivery whilst also serving as particular archetypes that allow the story to work within a set of presumptions. Look, I’m trying to be as coy as Barbarian here!
Everything is complimented by the frequently claustrophobic camera work. A classic ‘don’t go in the basement’ approach gets doubled down on, and then tripled down on, despite a fun little acknowledgement of the audiences’ thoughts when presented with the options.
Lastly, to round off all the parts I’m thinking about but am not writing about, Barbarian elevates itself by not surrendering entirely into the horrific.
Cregger swirls into the mix both an undercurrent of attitude criticism – where ‘public face’ and ‘private admissions’ clash – with some sweetening dollops of brevity. All good storytelling needs an emotive connection, and Barbarian remembers this to its credit.
Informed? I hope not. Don’t read reviews before watching Barbarian, not even this one. I hope you just see snippets of press coverage that go, “Oh, wow!” and go see it off of those alone. Come back to this review afterwards. I promise that I kept mum about everything.
Words by Mike Record