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Tess in Barbarian in fear as she climbs stairs
Image: 20th Century Studios

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Barbarian Doesn’t Know What it Wants to Be

A fun haunted house flick gets bogged down by misguided ambitions.

Barbarian is the latest casualty in the recent demand that all horror movies must somehow work to elevate themselves. The film is, at its core, an unoriginal but fun haunted house story set in an eerie Airbnb with a dark history. It has no real lasting impact and adds nothing new to the horror genre, but this is not necessarily a problem; Barbarian is entertaining, and sometimes all a movie needs to be is a nice, fun way to spend 90-120 minutes. Unfortunately, the film also feels the need to pretend it’s something that it’s not; Barbarian’s shallow, uncomfortable attempts at sophistication and social commentary ultimately hinder a film that attempts an affectation of a depth that it doesn’t actually have.

Set at an Airbnb in a run-down area of Detroit, the film clearly wants to comment on the very relevant issues surrounding this setting. Poverty, urban decay, the contribution of Airbnb to housing crises, gentrification, and similar issues are all relevant to the premise, and they are occasionally hinted at by the film. Unfortunately, Barbarian never actually does anything with these themes or seems to say anything specific about them; it simply uses an impoverished neighborhood in Detroit as the backdrop for a relatively unoriginal story about the history of a house of horrors.

The film follows researcher Tess (Georgina Campbell), who travels to Detroit for a job interview with a documentary filmmaker. When she checks into her Airbnb, she discovers that it has already been rented out to musician Keith (Bill Skarsgård) through a different website. They decide to share the rental; while initially awkward around each other, the two eventually bond. However, they slowly realize that the house they’re staying in is not quite right, as strange events begin to occur around them. The owner of the rental property, professional douchebag AJ Gilbride (Justin Long), later shows up as well, although to explain why he is present would be to spoil too much of the film.

Georgina Campbell as Tess in Barbarian stands outside the rental
Image: 20th Century Studios

When the movie isn’t trying too hard to be meaningful, it is a lot of fun. The performances are solid. Tess is often smarter and makes much more intuitive decisions than the standard horror movie protagonist, which is refreshing; however, there are still a few moments where she slips into standard scream queen logic. Campbell holds her own as a relatable and empathetic heroine, and she carries the audience effectively through the film. Her chemistry with Skarsgård is strong, and scenes between the two are fun and believable. It is also a lot of fun seeing Justin Long play an absolutely despicable character, and his performance is fantastic.

Director Zach Cregger clearly understands suspense, and his pacing is very well done. There are sufficient chills and thrills; Barbarian isn’t likely to provide anyone a significant amount of fear or any particularly memorable scares, but it is scary and suspenseful enough to entertain. There are also some great comic moments: these are mostly provided by Long’s ridiculous, outlandish asshole of a character, but Campbell also has a few moments of fun, relatable humor.

The cinematography is very hit or miss. There are some really interesting and visually compelling shots, but also some shots that could have used another take or slightly better editing. Some of the transitions, such as the camera passing through a glass window, are so poorly done that they fully distract from the film and pull the audience out of the moment. However, some of the shots of the mysterious rooms in the basement of the Airbnb are artfully done and compelling.

Justin Long shines a flashlight down a dark hallway in Barbarian
Image: 20th Century Studios

One of the biggest issues with Barbarian is that it makes the amateur mistake of thinking that mentioning a social issue is somehow the same as actually commenting on it. The documentary that Tess wants to work on is about artist collectives in Detroit, and it turns out that Keith is a member of one of these collectives. However, nothing is then actually said in detail about these collectives. The transition of the Airbnb’s neighborhood from a charming suburb to a decayed ghost town is also mentioned, but never really commented upon. There is even a mention of sexual assault and men not respecting consent, but again the film never goes anywhere with it. The film keeps bringing up important social issues for the sake of pretending that it has significant socio-political stakes, but it never bothers to do anything with these themes besides mention that they exist.

The most sophisticated attempt at thematic relevance is when the film tries to deal with the idea of women’s emotional labour, commenting on how Tess keeps putting men’s needs before her own well-being. This issue is established at the beginning by mentioning her relationship with her ex, and it comes up a few times throughout the rest of the film. There is also an interesting attempt to interrogate the idea of what a “safe” neighbourhood looks like, subtly critiquing peoples’ class and racial biases surrounding ideas of safety and danger. However, again, the film never seems to actually unpack these ideas or push them very far. Much like a C-level undergraduate paper, Barbarian is aware that themes exist, but doesn’t actually seem to have anything to say about these themes and never develops its ideas or takes them anywhere. Mentioning a social issue is not the same as dealing with it or addressing it in any depth.

Overall, Barbarian is a fun time, although it could have been even more of a fun time if it wasn’t so busy trying to be something it isn’t. If you’re looking for a nice way to kill two hours on a day with nothing better to do, or if you want to add another notch in your bedpost of forgettable-but-still-fun horror movies, Barbarian will hit the spot. Just don’t expect to be particularly impacted and you will have a good time.

Written By

Steven Greenwood is a Montreal-based writer & director, and the Artistic Director of Home Theatre Productions. He holds a PhD from McGill University with a focus on queer cultural history, and he teaches university courses in film, theatre, and popular culture. His work is influenced by his passion for queer history & culture, and he is a fan of all things geeky, pulpy, campy & queer. You can find him on Twitter @steven_c_g or on Instagram @steven.c.greenwood.

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