BARBARIAN (DISNEY+) (2022)
SYNOPSIS: In “Barbarian,” a young woman traveling to Detroit for a job interview books a rental home. But when she arrives late at night, she discovers that the house is double booked, and a strange man is already staying there. Against her better judgement, she decides to spend the evening, but soon discovers that there’s a lot more to fear than just an unexpected house guest.
Do yourself a favour – stop reading this review after this line, set aside two hours on a late evening, and let yourself be taken away by the twists and turns of this wildly unpredictable horror. But for the sake of the more skeptical readers, we’ll try to tell you more about ‘Barbarian’, without giving too much away to spoil its delightful surprises.
Employing a distinct three-act structure, writer-director Zach Cregger unfolds a tale of a homestay in a ravaged Detroit suburb which might be housing something sinister. The first act comprises two key characters – a budding documentary filmmaker named Tess (Georgina Campbell) who has rented an Airbnb for a job interview, and a young man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) who has supposedly also booked the same Airbnb from a different website. Because our introduction to Tess also hints at how she might be running away from someone who once hurt her, it is probably intuitive for one to suspect that Keith might be linked to this same person.
Suffice to say that as natural as the deduction might be, it is also all too obvious and ultimately mistaken. In fact, the real terror lies in the origins of the house which both will discover the morning after, its most horrific secret hidden in the basement that Tess will inadvertently stumble on and Keith will curiously wander into. It isn’t pretty, and truth be told absolutely nerve-wracking, but this is much more than just a survivalist thriller between Tess and Keith and the monster behind the walls of the house.
Concluding the first act on a height of suspense, the ensuing act introduces us to a fictional Hollywood actor named AJ Gilbride (Justin Long). Over the course of a phone call during his drive along the Santa Monica coast, we learn that AJ has just been dropped from the latest broadcast pilot that he’s filmed, all because of his allegedly sexually aggressive actions towards his co-star, whose accusations are due to appear in The Hollywood Reporter the next day. Against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, AJ is suddenly poison to the network executives, and finds his promising career all but ruined.
There are enough hints to suggest that AJ is hardly innocent, but what links his story to that of Tess and Keith is how he happens to be the owner of the very property that they had rented. Given his imminent financial woes, AJ decides to fly down to Detroit to sell the property, and is there confronted with the very same horror which Tess and Keith encountered months earlier. The second act also goes further to show what the monster living in the basement is after, though such details are best seen and not simply described.
We’ll not say much about the third act – just that it provides the backstory of how the monster came to be, and proving how the greatest horror of them all perhaps are the sins of mankind. The conclusion in particular turns a couple of genre cliches on their head, including and especially that about how the lead character in such movies does not seem to do the right thing to save himself or herself. Indeed, it is comforting to see that it reaffirms how it isn’t dumb to be kind, even in life-threatening situations.
Like we said, ‘Barbarian’ is best discovered on its own terms. Not only is it one of the most effective horror films we’ve seen in a while, it’s also one of the most unique, daring to attempt several narrative and tonal gear-shifts over the course of its runtime. It also is confident enough to hold your attention without resorting to cheap scares or shlock, even raising a couple of thoughtful themes along the way about urban decay, #MeToo and the ugly side of the Reagan era. For those who have needed the length of this review to convince you to watch it, you now have no excuse not to catch probably the most brilliant horror film this year.
Review by Gabriel Chong