Cinema/TV, Film Notes

FrightFest review – Barbarian (2022)

My notes on Barbarian (2022)

NB: spoilers abound.

Writer-director Zach Cregger’s Barbarian was pitched – with stern warnings against spoilers – as twist-heavy, which it isn’t really … but it has an unusual structure that throws curveballs every few reels, so that there are occasional have-they-got-the-wrong-reel? moments.

The first act, which could have been a long short, is a well-observed study in unease and red flag male behaviour.  Tess (Georgina Campbell) has a job interview – as a researcher with a documentary filmmaker – in Detroit and turns up after dark at an Airbnb only to find no key in the lockbox and then a guy, Keith (Bill Skarsgard), staying there who saye he has booked the same place through another service.  It starts to rain and there’s a convention in town that’s booked out all the hotels … and Keith insists Tess stay, giving up the bed (she insists they wash the bedding) and taking the couch.  Skarsgard is excellent at ambiguity – he keeps saying and doing things that could either be entirely reasonable (making a cup of tea) or have sinister intent, and Tess’s radar keeps going off only to be bypassed when Keith acts as if he realises, understands and doesn’t resent her discomfort.  Told from his point of view, this could be the first act meet cute of a rom-com … only, from hers it’s most likely a horror movie.

Things get weirder overnight – Keith has an unexplained red herring nightmare – and the next day, in the sunlight, Tess sees that the white-painted, neat house is stranded in an urban wasteland of burned-out shacks and wrecked cars, inhabited only by dangerous-looking derelicts.  On top of that, when she gets back to the place after her interview – when, frankly, her best advice would be to pack up and drive all night back home – she gets trapped in the basement by a treacherous door (its malignity recurs) and discovers secret passages, a well-lit room with a stained mattress and a video-camera, and a portal to a deeper lair.  Keith also comes back – and they unwisely venture deeper into the labyrinth to be attacked by its odd minotaur, a deformed naked woman (Matthew Patrick Davis).

Then, rug-pull cutaway … and we’re with AJ (Justin Long), a Hollywood actor who goes in one instant from up-and-comer to down-and-out as a costar accuses him of rape and his pilot is busted.  It turns out he’s going to need money to cope with this situation, and needs to sell his Michigan properties – which include the horror house.  That brings him into the picture, literally.  Later, there’s a flashback with the home’s previous owner Frank (Richard Brake) at a time when the whole nieghbourhood was picture postcard pretty with kids playing in the streets and cheery lawn-mowing neighbours – though the rot has already set in (though Tess is black, any racial angle is downplayed) and Frank is a deeply corrupt, thoroughly evil predator (‘she’s not even the worst thing down there,’ a bug has told Tess, re: the monster) who has built the horror lair and seeded it with his worst instincts.

Thematically, it gets back on its original track as Tess and AJ are thrown together – we know that AJ is probably as bad as Tess presumed Keith might be, but he’s also plausible, self-doubting (he leaves a drunk apology message on his accuser’s voicemail), self-aware enough to wonder whether he’s a bad guy who could do a good thing or a good guy who did a bad thing, and ultimately capable of self-serving rottenness that makes him perhaps the worst thing down there.  It joins It Follows and Only Lovers Left Alive as a desolate Detroit film – though it was shot, of course, in Bulgaria.


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