3 out of 5
Directed by: Zach Cregger
If not for some of the most effectively tense thriller / haunted house work committed in its opening 40 minutes, writer / director Zach Cregger’s Barbarian would… not necessarily qualify as a ‘good’ movie. That’s a bold claim, of course, and my belief in it definitely earns the film credit that allows it to coast some through its back half.
Barbarian – and more on that title in a bit – has cracks even through its solid section, but within it, you can sense some purpose: visual overreach that’s telegraphing hard, though it does exactly the job of setting the movie up to be of a particular type, which it then gets to keep dodging away from… And this same purposefulness is possible to read into its less-solid latter bits, but that feels like a retroactive read, and not something that strikes while you’re watching; is the movie’s unevenness, and potential layers, worthy of a re-viewing? This is kind of wrapped up in its very title, to me, which sets a tonal precedent by being a rather “visceral” word, and setting up a male vs. female dynamic from the get-go: searching-for-job Tess (Georgina Campbell) has arrived at her Airbnb in Detroit, only to find that Keith (Bill Skarsgård) has somehow also booked the same, and it’s the middle of the night, and raining, and they stare at each other across the door’s threshold, and we try to figure out who we believe, and who to trust, and who’s side we want to be on; told primarily from Tess’ POV, we’re armed with that title and the purposeful casting of Skarsgård making us uneasy, while Cregger’s camera creeps around corners and cues us in to an offness to the whole setup.
…Until enough things occur to set us at ease alongside Tess, and the two end up agreeing to a bedroom / couch split, and figuring it out in the morning. Then the next day’s events bring enough weirdness to completely shift our focus, and perhaps even forget that title. Only after we’ve been through a pretty harrowing exploration of the Airbnb and hit the credits might we have the need to finally question: who was the barbarian?
While it’s likely that elements of the movie have been spoiled by trailers and other reviews, I went in cold, so I’d rather not offer more than that in order to potentially replicate that experience for other viewers. …Which, thankfully, doesn’t necessarily mean that knowing what that shift in focus is ruins the movie, and to answer an earlier question, it’s probably better on rewatches in some regards. But I don’t know if I want to reward that. Because that early telegraphing feels mirrored in the movie’s second half, as the visuals continue to beat at us with a bit of flash over function, distracting from some clever things that have happened in the movies’ various male / female dynamics. Again, while there’s still absolutely purpose to that – enter Justin Long’s character later on, who gives us a very loud and obvious counterpoint to some of what we see / hear – stepping back from that and viewing from afar shows how this all structurally fits together, the overt stuff ruins the immersion, which makes it harder to praise the less overt stuff, and the movie has more and more trouble balancing this as it goes on, falling into illogics and further distraction maneuvers in attempts to maintain the earlier terrors and also earn some horror bona fides.
When I go back with questions of “But what about…?” and etc., I do find the answers come easy, which is nice. Even with that, though, the film’s unevenness between the obvious and more obscure, and the shift in tone it experiences midway through, make it so, so good… and then also very unsatisfying. Insert one last loop of thought about how that could be purposeful, but maybe I just want a movie to be good all the way through.