Barbarian (2022)

barbarian 2022 review

⭐⭐⭐ (3 stars out of 5)

Barbarian (2022) Directed by Zach Cregger

Uncovering the nefarious secrets confined in Barbarian’s darkest subterranean corridors is a piercingly terrifying exercise that from the onset of its stealthy atmospheric menace propagates a monstrously claustrophobic effect, proving to be, indeed, a horror film with an imposing ability to scare without trite contrivances. Barbarian is adequately creepy yet disappointing, I was as close to calling it the most genuine horror film of the year as I was far from it, though I’m very close to calling it “the horror film with the most superfluous sequences seen this year”.

Structurally, Barbarian’s raw material suffers from a superfluity that precludes it from being perpetually scary. I said it’s a horror film that smartly knows how to scare, however that doesn’t mean it does so with equal vitality in every sequence, there’s certainly a tonal disparity that restricts externalizing its greatest potential. From comparative perspectives, one can witness how Barbarian’s triptych storytelling goes in the opposite direction in terms of thriller; it opens with superlative suspense and then unexpectedly suppresses those meticulously established emotions, orchestrating dissimilar transitions that only justify their existence to provide cogency to the rhetorical dramatic twist. There is a surplus of plot that I can’t find the slightest sense, nor any validity in its extraneous narrative interference.

But let’s take it one step at a time, Barbarian is a film that we would traditionally denominate as a three-act story. Zach Cregger’s astoundingly inventive writing substantiates its aims with dynamic arguments that adopt a corpulent form of filmmaking, a method that maintains a rigor of unpredictability within its narratology, contains a myriad of gimmicks with enough fortitude to subjugate the audience and introduce them to its fluctuating shifts of focus. However, there are limits to even a specious attraction; when you discover that there are a number of non-essential scenes, i.e., that if they weren’t there the film would run its course with the same effects, that’s when Barbarian’s macabre magic loses significant pace and ultimately its evocation of taut sensations. It’s easy to identify reasons for these unnecessary intrusive moments that are scattered throughout the film from the rough second act onward, one of those reasons being that director Zach Cregger wants to articulate a social commentary, something he couldn’t have done if he was just constructing a suffocatingly long, suspenseful act. Although it is not a univocal social commentary, it is intended to be a concoction with different allusions to multidimensional issues.

It seems an authoritarian law or a pre-established consensus among contemporary filmmakers of the genre to have to forcefully  make a horror film that says something about our society, nowadays it seems inconceivable to see a horror film that does not want to allegorize something in particular, if they are not about psychological traumas they are about social traumas; both are somehow interchangeable but I think you understand the idea I want to get to.

Everything so far in this review seems to literally have a negative tone but don’t get me wrong, I still think this is an interesting piece of horror cinema, one of the most interesting in years, however it frustrates me a lot to have to judge it in such a bifurcated manner, although that’s not my fault, the film itself pushes you to have to scrutinize it that way.

The first act, which introduces us to the mysteries of Barbarian, is absolutely flawless. You don’t even have to ponder it a bit to be determined to call those first sequences an exemplary construction of suspense. Tess Marshall played superbly by Georgina Campbell, is a girl who gets the unnerving surprise of meeting a strange man in the same house she had booked to stay in, the polite and socially receptive stranger named Keith played convincingly by Bill Skarsgård, gets the same shock when he learns that both have booked the same house through two different apps. Doubtful and on constant alert, Tess accepts Keith’s proposal, who tells her to stay in the same house, especially given how dangerous it is to be out on the streets of Detroit late at night. In a rather awkward but progressively affable social routine, the two hit it off incredibly well, though the quiet atmosphere of the house they inhabit does not bode well. After a night of wine getting to know each other, Keith sleeping on the couch and Tess on the bed in the bedroom, the latter returns home from a job interview to discover a secret passage in the basement, which seems to have an impenetrable darkness and immeasurable depth.

The parameters set up to that delightfully frightening first act, work as an anticipation of what will come later, details that unfortunately I cannot expose here because I would be entering ‘spoiler’ territory, but what I can specify, is that what occurs in the arcane gloom of that basement slowly begins to make sense in the thrilling plot turns that gradually warm up as act after act passes. Yet, nothing is as riveting and palpable as the first time we, along with Tess, enter those rocky, endless passages in pitch blackness. Zach Cregger directs and writes this film enunciating himself as a filmmaker who understands the nature of intrinsic fears in human beings, and in consequence of that singular quality he has, cinematic energy perversely plays with our psychology by attacking our physical nerves as well. And I want to reiterate again the powerful tactility of the first minutes in which the protagonist of the film visits the hell hidden under that house, it is a sequence that is crafted with exquisite subtlety, respecting the tempos that each cut must follow to harmonize a scene that is sustained by the dread of the unknown, one of the primary fears of the human being.

The squalid setting of Barbarian takes place in Detroit, in a dilapidated neighborhood to be more precise where this house is located, which contradictorily to the poverty of the surroundings, looks clean and pleasant. Contextually, that gives it the appropriate place to consolidate its social commentary. Everything in Barbarian, literally everything, is intertwined based on its narrative inflection point, a film that pretends to make you believe that because you didn’t foresee that plot twist this production is ingenious; it’s clever up to a certain extent, then it’s just shoddy entertainment that wants to morph the ridiculous and implausible into tragedy. You see, my biggest complaint with Barbarian lies in all the time it wastes being outside that house, when really its potential as a horror film lay in staying inside it. Of course, some might say that if the whole movie had taken place in that creepy basement alone, then it wouldn’t have been able to make the expressive social commentary or perplex the audience with a plot twist; that’s vaguely true, but wasn’t it already cool enough to be in that continuous, unwavering tension of being trapped in the dark? Why discard something so brutally effective just to pluralize its message in inept truisms?

It is formidable what Barbarian achieves with very little, it is visceral when each element enters in seamless order to assault us with the strong anxiety that its characters transmit, especially the first two characters that for some reason, sadly, the filmmakers make them peripheral by giving protagonist priority to the prosaic character that is introduced from the second act. But above all, it is a film entirely fascinated with its obscure surroundings, and how these spaces can become an abrasive hell. It’s not the immediate classic everyone is talking about, but at least it is a horror film exploring the genre in new configurations.

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.