Ending Explained is a recurring column in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of the new horror movie Barbarian. Yes, prepare for spoilers.
[Quick editor’s note: The line above already gave a spoiler warning, but we’re going to double down on it at our Chief Film Critic’s insistence. Barbarian is a rarity in its structure, surprises, and payoffs, so while curiosity may lead you here before seeing the film, you owe it to yourself to go into the movie with as little information as possible. It’s a good movie regardless, but it’s a great one when you don’t know what’s coming.]
Picture this: you arrive at an Airbnb in the dead of night to find that the place has been double-booked by a mysterious stranger. You try to call the host, but it goes straight to voicemail. The stranger offers you the bed while he takes the couch, and you reluctantly accept his chivalrous offer. After all, it’s only one night. How bad can it really be?
In the world of Zach Cregger’s Barbarian, the answer is: worse than your worst, most bloodcurdling nightmare. This particular nightmare launches into action when co-renters and newfound friends, Keith (Bill Skarsgård) and Tess (Georgina Campbell), decide to explore the basement. Upon entry, they quickly find themselves trapped in a seemingly never-ending maze-like tunnel system.
Keith is soon killed off by a groaning, sagging, humanoid creature. Tess, on the other hand, isn’t so lucky and is trapped in the basement for a few weeks until she is joined by AJ (Justin Long), a hot-shot Hollywood director who owns the property and is looking to sell it.
But Tess isn’t just trapped. She’s being held captive by a woman who has been imprisoned herself by a man for the past several decades and was driven insane as a result. When she sees someone in the basement, she thinks they’re her baby and treats them accordingly — until they upset her.
This is where Tess and AJ come in. Locked in a cage under the AirBnB’s foundation, the only way for them to avoid being murdered is to allow the woman – we’ll call her The Mother – to treat them like babies. (This includes drinking milk from a grimy bottle and letting her cradle them. It’s kind of sweet, right?)
But while Tess has this routine down to a science, AJ can’t quite stomach it for some reason and attempts to run away. With the cage door left open, Tess finally has a chance to escape, so she does. But alas, her moral compass just won’t seem to let her leave AJ behind.
After a failed plea for help from the cops who dismiss her as crazy, Tess goes back to the house by herself and retrieves AJ (but not before he accidentally shoots her with a gun he stole from The Mother’s father, who it turns out was still living in the basement in his old age, but quickly shot himself when he was discovered by AJ).
Knowing the cops won’t do any good, Tess and AJ seek shelter with Andre (Jaymes Butler), a homeless man who knows all about the terrors of The Mother and her captor. But despite The Mother not having bothered Andre for the fifteen years he’s lived in Detroit, she quickly swoops in and rips him to pieces, intent on getting Tess – her baby – back.
So: the final face-off. AJ tries to save himself from The Mother by pushing Tess off a water tower, which isn’t totally out of character as his backstory includes him being Me Too-d by an actress whom he admitted to coercing into sex. But The Mother’s maternal instincts kick in, and she dives down onto the pavement to break Tess’s fall. When AJ sees that they are alive, he apologizes profusely to Tess – but it is too late. The Mother swiftly kills him, exacting revenge for what he did to her baby.
The Mother is over-the-moon to be reunited with her baby, but Tess says she can’t go back and shoots her. With that, Barbarian cuts to credits, which are cheekily overlaid by The Ronettes’ song “Be My Baby.” But what happens to Tess after the credits roll? Does she really get away?
Of course, one can only speculate on this, but signs point to her making it out alive. After she kills The Mother, Tess gets up and starts walking away. In leaving her as the only one alive, Cregger adheres to the “final girl” trope often seen in horror movies, which sees one woman left standing after defeating the monster. And the final girl usually lives to tell the tale. So, my money is on Tess making it back home.
Although it adheres to some horror movie tropes, such as the final girl, one of the things that sets Barbarian apart from other horror movies is its villain. In the final moments, you can tell Tess feels sorry for her. Indeed, The Mother is more than just your run-of-the-mill monster because she was pushed to do what she’s doing, no matter how wrong it is. She is the product of violent, incessant abuse that made her crave having a child. In a sense, then, Barbarian is about the ripple effects of abuse.
So did The Mother’s captor kill himself due to the guilt he harbored about the harm he had inflicted on her and the monster he created as a result? This is certainly an option, though given how long the abuse went on, chances are he feels no guilt and put the gun to his head simply because he was confronted by AJ and knows that he’ll probably get caught if AJ manages to escape.
Plus, The Captor’s abuse likely goes much deeper than we even realize. Andre explained that The Mother was forced to have babies – but where are they? Did The Captor murder them? No matter what he did with them, the fact that they are nowhere to be seen only prods us to believe The Captor is even more evil than we thought.
The scene where AJ stumbles upon The Captor is one of the most poignant in the film because, unbeknownst to either of them, AJ and The Captor are cut from the same cloth. Both in a habit of harming women for their own pleasure, the old man’s death does not mark a victory so much as a representation of the fact that, no matter what, there will always be people out there who want to do harm to others. And that’s more terrifying than any jump-scare and creepy corridor.