Barbarian understands that the central thrill of horror is not wanting someone to go in there. Those alarm bells go off almost immediately, when Tess, a young woman traveling for a job interview, arrives at her Airbnb to discover a man is already staying there—and he invites her to stay with him. Despite her reluctance to believe his double-booking story, she walks through the door into the realm of the unknown, nowhere to go but further. Barbarian pulls this move several more times. It always goes in there.
Like any good horror movie, it raises the stakes each time. When Tess finds a secret door in the basement, she rebuffs her instincts and ventures further in, knowing full well that she can’t unsee what’s waiting for her. When she finds another secret door in the secret part of the basement—one that leads down medieval-looking stairs into a dark underground tunnel—she descends into the pitch black like a Dante without a Virgil. Barbarian keeps these moments tense with visual evocations of crossing a threshold. Tess steps through the front door in a profile shot, replacing her fully exterior background with a claustrophobic interior in seconds, stressing the irreversibility of her decision. Open doorways lurk in the back of the frame, begging the eye to focus past the foreground for that inevitable movement on the other side. The film knows that the point of no return is a real, physical place, and its cinematography is the danger sign.
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Eventually, as you may have heard, Barbarian’s narrative crosses its own point of no return, cutting from a killer twist to a totally different protagonist. The movie is not all it seems—writer/director Zach Cregger, an alum of the sketch comedy group Whitest Kids U’ Know, likes to play with expectations. But when Barbarian signals what it’s doing with the new character, you’ll beg it not to go there. With confidence bordering on arrogance, the film immediately gives you a reason to hate the new guy and then asks you to spend the next hour with him. I won’t go into detail, but the change is purposefully jarring, the kind of brash, shocking mission statement that’s only decipherable in retrospect: ballsy if it pays off, foolish if it doesn’t.
It ends up somewhere in between. Emboldened by its one-two punch surprise midway through, Barbarian becomes a series of surprises, crossing thresholds of logic and good taste as its characters spiral into hell. Each twist is entertaining and unforeseen, and Cregger balances horror and comedy by pushing the conceptual envelope without straying from horror film staples. You’d think dialing the insanity past max would leave the realm of grounded horror, but the shots and the score keep the vibe alive, and it’s darkly funny to see the silliness take itself seriously. But between its surprises, the film’s substance just dithers.
The successive twists handle themes of rape and male violence very, very bluntly, and despite the story’s feminist trappings, its insistence on progressively weirder thrills holds it back from genuine commentary. Barbarian isn’t a movie that needs commentary, but in its repeated fallbacks on sexual violence and male danger, it keeps offering elementary observations on the subject, leaving us hungry for real, nutritious subtext. And for some, utilizing such serious themes without offering more insight in return may feel uncomfortably careless.
Ostensibly sensing that it has little to say, the movie rushes to a conclusion, ending with a violent bang and then a sheepish whimper—its blood on the ground but its themes in the air. The surprises feel hollow when they’re all over. It turns out the central thrill of going in there—where everyone knows you’re not supposed to go—isn’t enough. Barbarian goes there, but it doesn’t quite know what to say when it arrives.