It can be easy to lose faith in movies these days — Netflix mints a new forgettable rom-com every week, and HBO Max is on a rapid path to lose its reputation as the one quality streaming service. Sometimes it seems that everything is Marvel and nothing is good. Look into the headlines too deeply, and you will quickly become a film pessimist calling cinema a lost cause. But sometimes it can be best to just move beyond the noise, make your way to a real movie theater with popcorn and an Icee and see a movie that you know nothing about but will inevitably blow your mind. That is to say, go see “Barbarian.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what “Barbarian” is about without giving away the grand picture that is only revealed at the very end. It’s a horror film that will constantly keep you guessing over what the horror actually is. It leaves trails of breadcrumbs towards dead ends the audience follows with such intensity that they will be completely blindsided by the truth that has been lurking in the shadows the whole time. The movie is strung together by this pattern of subverting expectations, and yet each new bombshell feels just as fresh as the last. “Barbarian” grabs the collar of the viewer and drags them along, making them think they have some form of say over the narrative, until they are left as helpless as the victims of this film’s mysterious antagonist.
The film begins inside a car on a rainy night in Detroit, Michigan. Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) is about to check into her Airbnb, but she finds no key when she opens the lock box at the front door. She then sees a light switch turn on and a man sit down at the dinner table. After ringing the doorbell, he opens the door and reveals that there has been an error in booking and they have both rented out this house for the night. The man introduces himself as Keith (Bill Skarsgård) and, after failing to find an open hotel room, they decide that it is best to sleep in the same house, with Keith taking the couch and Tess taking the bedroom.
The film starts with a slow burn, but in this calm before the storm the movie plays with the viewer’s mind. Through a combination of subtle but highly effective cinematography and a dialogue chock-full of ambiguity, viewers are left unsettled in the beginning but not entirely sure why. The movie knows its audience expects something to go awry, so it makes them wait and wallow in the masterfully crafted discomfort for as long as possible.
Of course, the story eventually does take a turn. To avoid spoiling the film, nothing more can be said other than you should find a way to see this movie in a packed theater. “Barbarian” breeds one of those rare audience moments where everyone is experiencing the same strange cocktail of emotions and each beat of the narrative draws the perfect reaction. The film is wonderful on its own, but with the energy of an equally terrified, confused and excited crowd, it becomes something very few movies can even strive to be.
But fear isn’t the only feeling evoked by the film: It boasts some of the best laughs of the year as well. The pitfall with most horror films is that there has to be a certain degree of absurdity in the narrative, and most times this absurdity is handled with unneeded seriousness. “Barbarian” knows when it gets absurd and leans into it without corrupting the eerie atmosphere that it sets so well. The laughs do not take anything away from the screams, just as the screams do not ruin the laughs. It is a perfect symbiosis that allows this film to distance itself from the rest of the pack.
All of this is backed up by inventive and meticulously crafted directing from Zach Cregger. Cregger is a former member of a sketch comedy troupe and this is shockingly his first-ever solo directing endeavor. Much of the movie takes place in extremely dark environments, yet there is such endless expression in every frame. The usage of anamorphic lenses also creates some really tense and jarring scenes. All of this is combined with acting that, antithetical to much of the horror canon, feels human. It’s emotional without being exploitative and lighthearted without taking away from the gravity of the movie.
The film is structured more like a Russian doll than a straight line. From this outer shell of an Airbnb mixup, layers are slowly upacked bit by bit, with each new shell exposed being more shocking than the last. “Barbarian” is something more than just a great horror movie that subverts expectations and leaves you on the edge of your seat — it’s a treatise on the magic of movies and how that magic is best to be consumed in a dark room full of strangers all staring at a 30-foot-wide screen ready to watch something truly special unfold.
Finn Kirkpatrick is an arts & culture editor. He is a junior from Los Angeles, California studying Comparative Literature who likes to review movies and other things of that sort.