'Barbarian': A Wild, Unpredictable, and Thrilling Horror Film
In the opening scene of Barbarian, a young woman named Tess arrives at an Airbnb that she has booked, only to find that someone else is currently staying there. The occupant, a man named Keith, offers to let her stay the night since it is late and raining outside. Tess reluctantly agrees, but is still a little suspicious of Keith. There is an underlying tension within the preceding sequence, and it only builds and builds over the course of the film. And as the tension builds, so does the world of the film. What begins as a film that appears to be about an Airbnb getting double booked slowly reveals itself to be something darker and more sinister. As the secrets of the house unfold, the film becomes a disorienting, yet thrilling experience that feeds off of the fear of the unknown, and makes for one of the most unpredictable and shocking horror films I've seen in a long time.
To go any further into the plot would mean spoiling the film, and this is a film that benefits from going into it as blind as possible. If you have seen the trailer for the film, it doesn't give away as much of the film as you would think. Most of what you see in it happens within the film's first act, and you would be hard pressed to fully predict where it ends up going from there. So in the interest of preserving the film's big twists, I will have to be pretty vague about certain details. What I will say is that the film's structure is quite intriguing, as it builds along with the film's mounting tension. The film starts out with a simple premise, but it builds off this to create something that feels fresh. So much of this comes from how the film introduces new locations, as it is such a major factor in how the plot develops over the film's runtime. The more we discover about the spatial geography of the film's setting, the wider the scope of the film's plot gets. Elements that seem like they could be easily explained become a bit more complicated, and it becomes increasingly more difficult to figure out where the film is going next.
As it turns out, this uncertainty is a major driving force of the film, both for its characters and the audience. So much of the film hinges on the concept of the unknown, as the characters have no idea just what they are getting into for the majority of the film. The film's core mystery deals with the basement at the Airbnb our protagonist is staying at. From the moment she starts to venture through a secret passage that she finds down there, the film's tension begins to ramp up more and more. As I was watching the film, I was never 100 percent sure where the film was going next. I had my ideas, but more often than not, the film would go in a completely different direction. The thought of not knowing what would happen next adds to the film's horror in such a major way, as it puts you in the head of the characters. They have no idea what they are getting into, nor are they fully sure what to make of what they encounter. This leads to a sense of bewilderment, which is somehow more terrifying and potent than any of the potential ways I saw this film going.
A lot of credit is due to Barbarian's writer/director, Zach Cregger. I have to admit that I was surprised when I learned he was behind this film, given that I know him primarily as a member of the comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U'Know. While I know he has some solid comedic chops, I wasn't sure how he would handle horror. As it turns out, he has a serious knack for it. The web that Cregger weaves is so wild and weird, yet it is also quite well-crafted. The way he structures the film is quite effective, as it builds and builds in a way that keeps the audience guessing. I was thoroughly invested from the first seconds of the film, and found every new detail he introduces to be highly intriguing. It helps that the film's pacing is so precise, allowing viewers to keep up with the chaos being thrown at them, while also not dragging things out too much. The film's big scares are quite good as well, as he doesn't rely too much on jumpscares, and creates a foreboding atmosphere that permeates the film. I was a little worried the film was going to overdo the gore and violence, but it uses it rather well. It is pretty graphic, but it's not overly gratuitous either. The film is also a bit smarter than I was expecting, both in terms of the overall script, and in how it balances tone. It mostly stays firmly in the horror lane, but it knows when to swerve into campy territory as well. I may have been skeptical of Cregger's involvement going into the film, but after watching it, I sincerely hope he makes another horror film soon.
The film also features a trio of great performances at its center. Georgina Campbell is excellent, and gives one of the best horror performances of the year. Some of her best moments are her quieter ones, as she conveys so much through her physicalizations and facial expressions. She also shines when she is able to let loose, with one scene closer to the end of the film standing out in particular. It is a magnetic performance, and one that has me hoping we will be seeing more of her in the future. Bill Skarsgård is also great, and the way he embodies the role left me wondering whether he could be trusted. He gives the film exactly what it needs, and managed to surprise me a little. To me, the film's strongest performance comes from Justin Long, who plays against type to great success. His character is quite unlikable, and is morally dubious from the moment we meet him. He does a great job of finding the humanity of the character, and plays the less savory aspects of the role with aplomb. It's one of the best performances of his career, and shows that he is capable of more than some might think.
I was also intrigued by the film's visual elements, namely Zach Kuperstein's cinematography and Joe Murphy's editing. Kuperstein's camera work is subtle, yet well-deployed, especially the way he frames certain shots. This is apparent when we spend time with specific characters, as the way he uses the camera varies slightly when we focus on certain people. For example, a lot of the sequences with Justin Long have shots that are slightly off-balance, while certain shots from another character's perspective are more symmetrical and precise. It's something I can't dig into too much due to spoilers, but it did not go unnoticed by me. Murphy's editing can sometimes be a bit overzealous, especially with some of the quick cuts he uses, but it works far more often than it doesn't. I was also impressed by the synth-heavy score from Anna Drubich, which is perfectly used throughout the film. It sets the mood perfectly, and is almost anxiety inducing in certain moments. Some of the music cues are a little simple, but they work quite well in the context of the film.
Barbarian is a film that I can see becoming a bit of a sleeper hit. This film wasn't even on my radar until a few weeks ago when I caught the trailer for it, and was intrigued enough to give it a try. The screening I attended was pretty full, and I feel that word of mouth might help this film a lot. The film is so bonkers that it must be seen to be believed, and I do hope that people go see it in theaters. It's definitely one to watch with a decent sized crowd, as hearing how people react to some of the twists and turns of the film helped make my screening one of the my favorite moviegoing experiences of the year. But even outside of that, the film is a wild ride that surprised me several times throughout. It's easily one of the best horror films of the year, and one of the wildest films I've seen in the past few years. It's a must-see for horror fans, and an absolute thrill ride from start to finish.