Directed by Zach Cregger
Starring Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård and Justin Long
I have no idea what The Whitest Kids U’Know is, so hold on a minute <insert sound of keyboard> while I look it up. Ohhh, it looks like it was a sketch comedy show that ran from 2007–2011 on IFC.
Why is this important for my review of Barbarian? Well, it looks like a member of the sketch group (Zach Cregger) is also the director of this 2022 film. Going in, I wasn’t sure if I was in store for a thriller or a horror film. The ambiguous trailer I saw a month earlier set up a young woman showing up to her Airbnb, only to find out it is double booked. I assumed the tension between her and the other occupant would serve as the major tension in the film. I was wrong.
Young business woman Tess (Georgina Campbell of Black Mirror episode “Hang the DJ” fame) does indeed agree to stay with young Keith (Bill Skarsgård of Skarsgård family fame) after there is an Airbnb double booking. And what comes next is the kind of tension I would expect from a thriller. But Barbarian quickly evolves into a bonkers, full on horror film chock full of effective jump scares, terrifying imagery and elements of gore. My mouth was open for most of my first viewing. The second time I watched it I brought my unsuspecting wife. Stealing glances throughout the film, I noticed she had the same reaction.
Those of us who voraciously consume media sometimes suffer from becoming too “genre intelligent.” I’ve been immersed in the history of adapting 2D comic books to 3D films for so long that I feel like I can see every twist, turn and misdirection coming a mile away. Recently, I convinced myself I could do the same thing with psychological horror films. Barbarian proved me wrong. In fact, I dare you to tell me after you see this film that you knew what was coming after the closing of the first act. Then I double dare you to tell me that you knew which song would play as the credits rolled.
Though the tension, horror and gore in Barbarian are all top notch, the film’s sardonic wit stayed with me even more. What better way to relieve the tension then to give the audience a reprieve with a character acting a bit too heroic, a bit too unaware or like too much of a douchebag? Cregger abandons the wit and comedy of the film’s first two acts and does his best to shock us in the third; for most, he will succeed. The final act is almost a homage to the New French Extremity (High Tension, 2003; Inside, 2007; Martyrs 2008).
Barbarian is one of the rare films that forces me to give up any attempt to figure out what will happen next. It felt good to just let go and see where it took me.
Never heavy handed but with something to say about class and misogyny, this film delivers thoughtful entertainment under the guise of a taut thriller, then transitions to something entirely different before ramping into horrific extremes in its final act.
If fellow 2022 thriller The Watcher is an A and the aforementioned New French Extremity films are all B’s, then this film, which is a little of both, comes in at a B+.