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Barbarian Breaks Down Expectations

When it comes to watching genre films, especially during my first viewing, a great deal of my mental real estate is taken up by a database of tropes. I find myself analyzing a film for telltale signs about where a film might be heading or what I might expect. Tropes are not bad; they just are. Honestly, I enjoy finding how different films and filmmakers use the tropes of their genre to create something new. But what happens when a film seems to exist primarily to screw with audience expectations of those tropes? You get something like the low-fi horror film Barbarian.

The film focuses primarily on Tess (Georgina Campbell), who’s come to Detroit for a job interview. When she gets to the house she’s renting, she finds that it’s already occupied by a second renter named Keith (Bill Skarsgård). With nowhere else to go, the two slowly warm up to each other and agree to share the house until they can figure the situation out. However, things take a dark turn when Tess discovers a secret room in the basement of the house that leads to a disturbing secret.

There’s a bit of a remixed old school vibe to Barbarian that’s made apparent right from the film’s poster, which uses a stretched-out version of an 80s-inspired horror title font. It’s the kind you’d see on Stephen King novels of the time. While it’s set in the present day, it has a very vintage energy to things in its self-containment, relatively restricted environment, and it’s reliance on practical effects. There’s a bit of old-school grindhouse vibe to its slow, slow burn and its concentrated bursts of grotesquerie that act as accents to its concerto.

I see a little silhouetto…

But the most interesting thing about the film is how writer/director Zach Cregger plays with audience expectations and twists his story in surprising ways. The first act is littered with red herrings that tease a dozen different directions the film could go. Is there something supernatural going on or not? Is Keith charmingly awkward or a genuine creep? Is the double-booking intentional or just a clerical error? The misdirects and maybes don’t stop until the final part of the film, and even then, Cregger never stops piling them up.

The film’s larghetto tempo actually harmonizes quite well with this approach. Once we start picking up and all the tropes we expect out of a horror film, it’s almost like a reflex for us to start analyzing every frame and moment for more of them to keep building the mystery. But even the most genre-savvy of viewers might have a hard time constructing the story Cregger eventually ends up telling. In some ways, the story ends up being less interesting than the method Cregger uses to deliver it. Once everything is laid out, there are certain things that don’t quite add up, and you’ll either find yourself marveling at all the misdirects in retrospect or getting frustrated by them.

Cregger also keeps the audience off balance by enacting a few major point-of-view shifts over the course of the film. At the midway point, we suddenly jump from Tess’ perspective to that of a Hollywood actor named AJ, played by Justin Long, who turns out to own the house that Tess and Keith are renting. It takes a while to get him back to said house and integrated into the main story, at which point the POV shifts again for something else before jumping back. While Cregger uses the time with AJ to lay down the second half of the thematic foundation he started with Tess and Keith’s story, it does cut off the slow but tightening momentum Cregger had going.

This definitely wasn’t part of the Airbnb ad.

Once the plot threads are woven together, however, things really start picking up and the tension rises relatively quickly. As the third act starts accelerating, the themes Cregger laid down start to become more apparent. There’s a lot of gender-based issues going on here that I won’t elaborate on for fear of accidentally divulging spoilers. Suffice it to say, Cregger is definitely trying to Say Something here, but his thesis could have used a tighter edit. Like fellow comedian-turned-horror-filmmaker Jordan Peele, Cregger is using the genre as a metaphor for modern issues, but he lacks Peele’s ability to play to the audience and his penchant for tightly-choreographed spectacle.

That isn’t to say Cregger isn’t trying his best or doesn’t succeed. Things are just rougher and more muddled than they probably need to be. Cregger is great at slow-rising horror, and he executes his scares and gore moments well. He’s great at giving us the classic moment where our hands reflexively cover our eyes to avoid processing the terrifying thing in front of us, and some of his moments are disturbing enough to sink their hooks deep into our brains. His use of light and shadow must also be commended, and not just in the scenes under the house. When Tess arrives to the house, it’s pitch black outside. In the morning light, however, Tess finds the neighborhood covered in abandoned houses seemingly held together by graffiti, with her rental being the only one that resembles something livable. It’s a strong mental debate about which is the more disturbing backdrop.

Speaking of Tess, Georgina Campbell is a lot of what drives this film and keeps things together. She has a remarkably expressive face and an impressive control of her emotional range. Campbell is instantly likable, and we’re instinctively drawn to her. Even when she’s not on screen, it’s tempting to be more concerned with whether or not she’s okay or what’s happening to her. Campbell’s performance is natural and organic. Even when Tess is going through the Standard Horror Idiot Moveset, it’s hard to fault her because Campbell’s put in the effort to make Tess so sympathetic.

Tess, you in danger, girl.

The leading men of the film show off two very, very different ends of the masculine spectrum even if both end up informing the film’s examination of gender. Bill Skarsgård’s Keith is initially off-putting and awkward to the point of suspicion, but as Tess gets to know him, we realize that he could very well be just that: awkward. On a metatexual level, we’re inclined to be suspicious of Skarsgård because of his unique look and his association with playing Pennywise, but Skarsgård plays Keith with a disarming subtlety and strangely adorkable charm. Justin Long, on the other hand, is a self-important dude-bro, loud and entitled. He ends up providing us with the film’s most darkly comedic moments and also some of its most interesting thematic twists through how his ego and sense of agency gets deflated by the horrific situation he finds himself in.

Cregger ends up balancing all his elements very well, even if he doesn’t bring us at all the kind of horror film we’re expecting. By keeping the audience off-balance and constantly guessing, he ends up making the real story of the film seem all the more frightening and surreal. Is it as consistently gripping and scary as it could have been? No, but it does have a level of disturbing reality that soaks into the skin and lingers long after the credits have rolled. It’s a great first effort, though, and I for one am very curious as to what else Cregger has up his sleeve. If this film is any indication, it could be anything at all.

FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B

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