Nothing about the trailer for “Barbarian” indicated anything unique or fresh. In fact, in many ways the trailer felt incredibly generic, milking countless horror movie tropes that have been used ad nauseam throughout the genre’s history. Yet I’m tempted to call the trailer genius, not because of what’s in it but because of what’s left out. To its credit, “Barbarian” can’t really be labeled as generic thanks to its handful of unexpected twists and gonzo turns. And its straightforward commentary shows it has things on its mind.
But simply jolting the audience with a crazy turn or two doesn’t make for a good horror movie. And simply having themes in your film isn’t the same as doing something meaningful with them. And that leads to what makes “Barbarian” an unfortunate disappointment. There’s no shortage of good ideas in the movie we’re given, yet the payoffs range from underwhelming to preposterous. Then there’s the film’s social messaging, much of which focuses on bad men and their various shades of misogyny. Yet despite some compelling early exchanges, the movie is content with a surface-level treatment of its themes and squanders some real potential.
Yet even if the twists led to great payoffs and the film’s themes were explored deeply and with savvy, “Barbarian” would still be a tough sell. That’s because the sheer stupidity of the characters and their actions plague the entire movie. And no amount of effort put into suspending disbelief could help me to look past the steady stream of dumb character decisions. It’s so obvious that you’d almost swear “Barbarian” was a parody. But it’s not, and as things get sillier, it gets harder to find anything resembling a fright aside from the occasional lazy jump scare. There’s a ludicrous gross-out moment and a couple of scenes of cheap B-movie gore. But nothing I would categorize as scary.
“Barbarian” is the feature film debut for writer-director Zach Cregger. What he gives us is essentially a three-act movie that connects three very different people from three very different places to one very specific house with some pretty twisted secrets. It’s an audacious story structure that begins on a dark and rainy night in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood. Tess (Georgina Campbell), who’s in town for a job interview, pulls up to the Airbnb she has booked for the evening. But to her surprise she finds the house is occupied by a man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) who rented the place himself from another online agency.
Keith is a little awkward but seems nice enough, even inviting Tess to come in out of the rain. After neither can reach their booking agencies, Keith asks Tess if she would like to stay the night and sort out their mess in the morning. He offers her the bedroom while he takes the couch. After very little hesitation, she agrees.
By this point, our protagonist’s ‘horrible decision’ count is already at about 5. And again, that would be okay if this were a spoof (something like the Geico commercial where kids running from a maniacal killer hide in a shed full of chainsaws rather than get in the running car). But it’s not. Tess is an otherwise intelligent and capable young woman which Campbell’s performance conveys far more effectively than the writing. But the dumb choices really start to rack up once Tess ventures into the house’s basement, discovers a secret door, and can’t resist the urge to explore what’s behind it.
I won’t say much more because (supposedly) the film works best if you go in blind. But Justin Long shows up in a borderline cartoonish second act that sees the movie suddenly reaching for laughs despite introducing some rather serious subject matter. I’m still not sure if Long‘s character is meant to be taken seriously or if he’s just an obnoxious stooge. Either way, he provides us with more stupid character decisions which eventually lead to a film’s final act. It’s here that “Barbarian” gets points for going bonkers, yet it’s ending is undone by a really dumb final ten minutes that features even more dimwitted character choices and a laughable final scene that had several people at my screening snickering.
Cregger does some really good things when it comes to atmosphere, especially in the film’s first act. The movie is also helped by a strong performance from Campbell who works hard to give Tess credibility even as the script is constantly undermining her. Then there’s the story structure which is notably unconventional but hardly revolutionary. By the midway point of the second act you have a good idea what it’s going for. And then you have its themes which many other movies are also exploring. Here they’re simply present rather than tackled.
“Barbarian” has a good premise and a willingness to go off the rails. But it’s hampered by its vacuous characters and the movie’s unfortunate reliance on their routinely dopey decisions. Some may be able to overlook it. After all, horror movies are notorious for characters making dumb choices. But here it’s one after another. At times you can almost sense Cregger’s awareness, yet he double-downs on it. And for a movie sporting such big ideas, it’s a shame to see it lean so heavy on the conventional. “Barbarian” is now showing in theaters.