Barbarian is best seen knowing as little as possible. It is the kind of film you will be dying to talk about after you see but know that the best experience is a cold one. Zach Cregger has written and directed an absurd yet grounded horror film packed with fun twists and turns. The film builds tension from early on until it hits a bonkers pitch that makes your heart race. It is an impressive debut.
Here is the skeletal plot, careful not to spoil anything. Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Detroit Airbnb. When she gets there, Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already there. They confirm that it has been double-booked. Keith seems nice but Tess is smart and defensive. His unexpected presence unsettles her. She is quick to take a photo of his ID, quick to lock doors behind her, and quick to not accept a cup of tea he makes her. Eventually, she lowers her guard, and the two bond over art.
Then in the middle of the night, she is awoken to find her door open and Keith yelling in his sleep. This leads to a series of events that reveals a secret passageway in the basement, equipped with a dingy room with a camera, a bed, and a bucket. From there, a mystery unravels about what exactly is going on in this house. Campbell's performance is key here as she balances curiosity with caution, never playing Tess as a stock horror dummy. Mix this with a dark streak of comedy and you have a compelling lead that you believe is clever enough to handle whatever lies in front of her.
Cregger structures the film in distinct parts, often leaving on a cliffhanger to pick up on seemingly unrelated stories. However, everything eventually loops back to the house and the clever choices made in the process are a highlight of Barbarian. Each part focuses on a different character, helping to make the climax complicated yet clear. We understand the choices that get made as a result.
One of these segments introduces AJ (Justin Long), a douche-bag actor who is under sexual misconduct allegations. He is the perfect counterpoint to the smart, self-preserving Tess. It is in this contrast that Barbarian reveals it has more on its mind than just scares. It explores the cycles of abuse, particularly from men to women and how those cycles eventually crash. Cregger works these themes into the shocking moments of the narrative. It is a playful yet mindful film as a result.
When the film does reveal all its disturbing cards, there is a banality to the evil that feels truthful. It is unexpected given how gonzo the film gets at times. Cregger doesn't quite stick the landing but the ride to it is heady, thrilling, and shocking.
Barbarian is a stand out horror film this year. It is twisted fun, a descent into hell with a darkly comic edge that keeps it from ever being a slog. The film's grounded horror will stick with you long past the sense that it is missing a final beat. Horror fans rejoice.