I don’t like trailers — I just don’t. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the beauty of a well-cut trailer, but I avoid them like the plague when I can because they often give away too much. At least we’re well past the days of the old Rocky trailer, which gave away all three acts of the film. This mindset didn’t change for Barbarian, a new horror flick written and directed by Zach Cregger. Granted, I did manage to watch 20 seconds of the trailer on Twitter before deciding I was in and not needing to be further sold on it. But for a film that was described to me as the “Airbnb horror movie,” Barbarian strikes me as far more than that. Upon watching the trailer in its entirety post-screening, there are even more layers than what is on the surface; however, I’d still recommend going in as blind as you can. There’s a bit of a stumble to the finish line that’s prolonged if nothing else, but Barbarian still does enough to stand on its own in a very strong year of horror films.
Tess (Georgina Campbell) travels to Detroit for a big job interview for a research position with a documentary filmmaker. When she arrives at the house she had reserved on Airbnb on this rainy night, she discovers that she is not the only one who rented this house. Keith (Bill Skarsgård) was already occupying the space before Tess arrives. Despite common sense saying to run in this scenario, Tess decides to stay the night, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s more to the house than you think. If you’ve seen the trailer, you may have a slight idea of what to expect, but you won’t fully be prepared for what’s to come.
While a horror film completely centered around the plot described above would be welcomed, Barbarian offers so much more to unpack. In fact, there’s a whole character that isn’t even shown in the first trailer that plays a significant role in the second half of the film. When the character is first revealed, it interrupts a part of the story I wanted to see the continuation of. We do eventually get back there, but I initially feared that we were going to experience an unnecessary amount of backstory that would ultimately ruin the world that Barbarian had already set up to this point. Luckily that isn’t the case here, and this detour provides an intriguing look at a situation that Hollywood has unfortunately seen far too many times.
Back to Campbell and Skarsgård: they kick off the film and are a major reason why Barbarian even works. The performances of the two, aided by the cinematography, will grab your attention hook, line and sinker. Campbell has the humility and authenticity of a girl unsure of what to do in a very weird situation. As will be discussed in a moment, Tess’ empathy gets in the way of a distinctly great horror character, but that’s more on the writing than Campbell. It cannot and should not be ignored that Skarsgård bears a lot of resemblance to the Bengals’ Joe Burrow in this role. He too has a level of authenticity to him. When Tess first arrives, Keith does everything in his power to keep Tess there and make her feel safe (i.e. opening the wine bottle in front of her). He even goes one step further, doing the whole trope where he says “Who do you think I am?” and proceeds to provide an eerily detailed, yet not entirely inaccurate, scenario. In the case of Barbarian, he says something like, “What do you think I am? A creepy guy who broke in here to sleep?” Despite the “nice guy” behavior, you can’t help but question his every action.
The craftwork on Barbarian is so immensely impressive and should not be ignored. From the opening scene where Tess arrives at her Airbnb, the entire film is staged and blocked perfectly. On the rainy night in the first act, the darkness and the street lighting, or lack thereof, give the audience a nudge that there’s more to this picture than what we initially see. As Tess drives through the neighborhood the very next morning, the stark reality that the neighborhood is a completely deserted wasteland kicks in. Even after being warned by the person interviewing her for the job, who immediately knew of the spot, Tess decides to tough it out for the remainder of her stay.
But this is quite a double-edged sword. A lot of Barbarian’s logic is silly, but I will let most of it slide because it’s a horror film. That said, Tess is shown to be a very empathetic person, even to a fault. And to be clear, almost every horror film needs a character like this. In the case of Barbarian, Tess’ kindness and empathy are simply a way to contrive an extended third act (but more on that in a moment). I can’t even say what she does in the third act that resulted in the only time I said “Oh, come on!” to myself during the screening without spoiling the film. In fairness to Campbell, the blame falls on the shoulders of the writing than her performance. She can’t help but look like a tool in the situation that occurs; not even Al Pacino could make chicken salad out of that chicken crap.
Unlike most horror films, the cinematography of Barbarian has personality. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein works a delicate balance of tracking shots that aren’t overbearing. In the case of a film like Barbarian, which primarily takes place in the house and what lies beneath, the temptation to overuse tracking shots was there I’m sure, but I never felt tired of them whenever they were utilized. And what is beneath the house are creepy catacomb-like passageways. There really isn’t a lot of room to work with, yet Kuperstein makes you feel claustrophobic down there. Kuperstein also utilizes a POV shot when one character looks down a dark hallway that places you into a VR horror game scenario.
While the first flashback works well, there’s another that provides even more backstory, going back even further in time to show another owner of the house during the Reagan Administration. The setup of this one is perfectly fine, but it leads to a third act reveal that is about on par with that of Don’t Breathe. I won’t say anything further, but that twist, combined with the several attempts at weaving in social commentary, is a bit of a mixed bag. There are metaphors hammered home one too many times and a portrayal of cops that is as much of a burlesque satire as the portrayal of southerners in B.J. Novak’s Vengeance (another film I love, to be clear). Quite frankly, I think all that it comes down to is that these attempts at making Barbarian deeper than it really is were necessary. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it certainly didn’t enhance the film much.
At the time that I’m writing this review, I’m set to take a trip to Nashville later in the week where I’ll be staying in an Airbnb myself. Barbarian has made me rethink that idea with its terrifying take on the whole concept of renting out someone’s home, but beyond the surface of what I believed to be a film solely about Airbnbs, Barbarian surprised me. There’s a lot to chew on and I’m not entirely sure about the third act, but the craftsmanship of the film is top-notch and it’s original if nothing else. I do think you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t hooked by that stellar first act. Now that he’s tackled Airbnb, I just need Cregger to make the inevitable Uber and Facebook Marketplace horror films. Or maybe he shouldn’t: reality is often more terrifying than fiction.
Barbarian will be released in theaters on September 9.