Barbarian Synopsis: A young woman (Georgina Campbell) discovers the rental home she booked is already occupied by a stranger (Bill Skarsgård). Against her better judgment, she decides to spend the night but soon discovers there’s a lot more to fear than just an unexpected house guest.
An Airbnb mishap devolves into one unpredictably hectic situation inside a decaying Detroit neighborhood in Barbarian. Embracing the unexpected is a fitting calling card for Barbarian writer/director Zach Cregger. Cregger, one of the prominent voices behind the sketch comedy show The Whitest Kids U’Know, often pushed societal notions to their breaking point through his brand of crass sketches.
With Barbarian, Cregger returns to the feature-length field with a new embrace of horror aesthetics (Cregger previously co-wrote/co-directed Miss March with former comedic partner Trevor Moore). Thankfully, the writer/director doesn’t miss a beat in his bold genre transition. Barbarian conjures a nightmarish asylum jam-packed with imaginative horrors.
Not to sound cliche, but the several warnings stressing viewers to avoid trailers and other marketing materials here are well-warranted. The element of surprise is one of Barbarian’s greatest strengths. Like a shifty showman, Cregger consistently pits viewers against their expectations and finds innovative avenues for confronting some of the genre’s played-out tropes.
The ever-evolving narrative helps extenuate the inherent unease as viewers gradually creep down a funhouse of dark corridors and unpredictable revelations. Although Cregger’s choices may seem dissident at first glance, the pieces eventually glue together in a well-constructed puzzle. I also give the cast significant praise for selling their enigmatic characters. Georgina Campbell and Bill Skarsgård enrich their roles with proper conviction, while Justin Long becomes a scene-stealer in a deranged twist on the actor’s likable movie star image.
As a director, Cregger imbues creative vitality into horror’s well-trudged roots. Perspective becomes an expressive tool for him and Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein to dig under viewers’ skin. The duo implements jagged POV shots and peering views down oppressively bleak hallways with technical aplomb, ensuring that every gutsy choice accents the tense experience rather than straining for a sense of style. These decisions allow Cregger to create a film that boasts a distinct sense of place despite a limiting $10 million production budget.
Barbarian rarely draws a dull moment, but the film’s thematic aspirations are where some blemishes begin to appear. I credit Cregger for taking some big conceptual swings with his screenplay. There are moments where Barbarian admirably reckons with cultures of gentrification/masculine abuse and the disenfranchised byproducts left in their wake. Unfortunately, the concepts end up serving more as pieces of narrative window dressing than a well-articulated marriage between story and message. Cregger’s lack of a nuanced thesis leads to the film’s waning moments drawing less impact than they could have.
I still found myself enthralled by Barbarian’s twisted sensibilities from start to finish. With his balance of craft and inventiveness, Cregger promises to be another exciting new voice in the horror sphere.
Barbarian is now playing in theaters.
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