The first time I saw the trailer for “Barbarian,” I was in the theater waiting for “The Black Phone” to start. The trailer made the film seem interesting enough — Tess, played by “Broadchurch” star Georgina Campbell, finds herself stuck in an Airbnb with Keith, played by Bill Skarsgård, who horror fans might recognize as the murderous clown from the “It” two-parter. After she goes down to the basement, she finds a secret door in the wall leading to a stairway going deep underground.
Then I saw what you typically find in a horror trailer: a few foreboding shots, some terrified screaming, a creepy monologue, and, of course, a small jump scare. According to the trailer, it was produced by the same folks who produced “It” and “The Grudge,” both very popular films, so my interest was piqued, at least for the time being. I forgot the trailer entirely after I left the theater.
Months later, I see another trailer for “Barbarian” on YouTube, but now it’s of an audience jolting in terror, filmed by a night-vision camera. A voice-over tells me that “Barbarian” is scaring audiences and that it has received a good rating on Rotten Tomatoes. With my memory of the film restored, I look online and sure enough, “Barbarian” scored a 92%, higher than I expected. I had no plans for the week, so I decided to see if 92% was justified. Sure enough, it was.
Like in the trailer, “Barbarian” opens with Tess arriving at an Airbnb in the middle of a decrepit Detroit neighborhood. She’s surprised to find that a man, who introduces himself as Keith, has already occupied the building for the night. Because it’s pouring and all the hotels are completely booked, Tess reluctantly decides to stay for the night.
From the moment we step into the house, we’re greeted with a lingering sense of discomfort: A man Tess has no knowledge of is going to be sleeping in the same place as her. To make things even more discomforting, Keith begins to act awkwardly, like he’s never spoken to a woman before: He tries to engage in small talk and tries offering her a glass of wine. Tess, who clearly has had her education on dealing with strange men, snaps a photo of his driver’s license in case he starts making some unwelcome moves. Then, just as Tess has had enough, Keith brings up movies, and the two start affectionately bonding. By the time the two go to sleep, they’re two steps from becoming a couple.
But the veil of discomfort has not completely washed away. As she lay in bed, Tess is awoken by Keith moaning in fear, trapped in a nightmare. She snaps him out of it, and he initiates another awkward conversation. When she wakes up again, morning has come and Keith has left the house. She leaves the house herself to attend a job interview, her very reason for being in Detroit, and gets a real look at the neighborhood under the bright morning sun. The houses aren’t just shabby, she realizes — they look to be on the verge of collapse, overtaken by graffiti, rot and nature. Nobody seems to be living in them.
Returning home from her interview, Tess goes down to the basement to retrieve some toilet paper and accidentally locks herself inside. Searching for a way out, Tess discovers a secret door — the one seen in the trailer — giving way to a dark corridor. At the end of the corridor is a small room whose contents terrify her, and she sends Keith to investigate after he pulls her out of the basement. But when Keith doesn’t return, Tess has no choice but to investigate herself, and that’s when the real terrors begin.
“Barbarian” is a film chock-full of surprises and tension. From the very beginning, you’re at the edge of your seat with your eyes glued to the screen, anticipating some new, unexpected twist. The camera work is impeccable — alongside the clever directing, it helps both communicate the characters’ thoughts and convey the story on a purely visual level. Had the film been released without sound, you would still understand the story.
Because much of the film takes place in dark tunnels deep underground, one should expect to feel cramped, and “Barbarian” does a great job of simulating that feeling to a tee (I found myself squirming in my seat a few times). Even if they’re on the other side of the screen, you can feel what the characters feel: powerless, helpless, vulnerable and afraid.
Part of what makes “Barbarian” such an intriguing flick is its ability to subvert expectations. From the moment we’re greeted by Keith, we’re asking the same questions Tess is asking in her head: Why is this man at the Airbnb? Why does he act so awkward? Is he trying to hide something, or is he simply that way? And what if, maybe, this is all a massive setup on his part? Even when Tess makes friends with Keith, we’re still somewhat suspicious of him, giving him a wide mental berth. Then we reach the halfway point, and that’s where the real gut-puncher lies. Everything we thought of him — and everything we thought of the film — flies out the window as we’re hit with a new, unexpected (and terrifying) reality.
“Barbarian” continues to subvert expectations with the introduction of AJ, a character we’re introduced to around the film’s halfway point. Much like Justin Long, the man who portrays him, he’s an actor, but unlike Long, he’s been accused of raping a woman. To pay for his legal fees, he has to sell his rental properties, one of which turns out to be the Airbnb that Tess stayed in. What makes his character a subversion is his appearance and demeanor.
After hearing of his actions, you’d probably think of a man with thick muscles, a well-shaved beard, a strong jawline, and a douchey, dominating personality to match. Instead, AJ is portrayed as more of an everyman, someone you might make friends with at the bowling alley or your local Starbucks. He’s not necessarily buff and he’s almost likable, if not for what he did.
“That’s too on the nose,” said director Zach Cregger while interviewing for The Hollywood Reporter. “I was like, ‘A more terrifying sexual predator is somebody who is charming and not threatening and likable and disarming.’”
One last subversion I’d like to note is the true antagonist of the film. I won’t give too much away, but I will say that their motives and backstory almost make you feel for them. Heck, toward the end, there’s a moment that I’d argue was actually a little heartfelt. Horror villains with sympathetic backstories do exist but they’re usually hard to find, so it was refreshing to see one in “Barbarian.”
“[They’re] the most sympathetic character in the whole movie,” Cregger stated. “The most interesting movie monsters are monsters that you can sympathize and empathize with.”
The characters in the story aren’t tailor-made to express the film’s underlying themes; they all feel and act like real people you’d meet. Keith, handsome but awkward, does not conform to Tess’s — and the audience’s — assumptions. To make him the ultimate villain would not only be too obvious but also make the film, in Cregger’s words, “too on the nose.” He would be nothing more than a mere caricature for the audience to gawk at once he dies, a device to send some kind of message about the predatory nature of men. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it would make the story feel cliché and a lot less memorable.
Tess and AJ are no less real. Beyond feeling uncomfortable around a man she doesn’t know, Tess is placed in a situation she cannot escape, pinning her down like a bug. She has no plot armor to save her and she doesn’t have any amazing secret talents hidden up her sleeve. When the true antagonist takes her, she doesn’t automatically switch to fight mode and beat them, nor does she concoct some elaborate escape plan; she remains trapped, and for a longer time than I expected. Only by blind luck is she able to save herself and gain the opportunity to kill the antagonist — in probably the most realistic scenario, had we been in her position.
And speaking of AJ, he’s no knight in shining armor. Beyond possibly raping someone, he’s shown to make some questionable choices regarding his survival instincts. But I would be lying if I said that Tess herself didn’t make at least one in this film. Overall, no character is completely heartless or pure, and that makes them all the more believable.
How the story is presented is another one of the film’s strengths. Rather than tell the story in a conventional manner, “Barbarian” chooses to tell one story, then start another when it seems the first one has ended (when this story began, my first thought was that I was watching a different film). And when that story finishes, it ends right where the first one ended, tying things together. But then, just as you think everything’s settled, the film pulls you into yet another story, this one taking place decades before the first two (to give the audience some well-needed backstory and context). All these little stories help to construct one long narrative that, when viewed as a whole, is quite unsettling, even flat-out disturbing in some places.
“Barbarian” is a flick that deserves to be watched. It may appear like your average horror film on the surface, but give it chance as I had. It will turn your expectations on their heads.