A film opens with a young woman arriving at a quaint Airbnb in the heart of a dark and stormy night only to discover that a mild-mannered and mysterious young man has also booked the place. That usually means one of two things. Either the hapless strangers will fall in love, or some balls-to-the-wall terrifying shit is about to go down. In Zach Cregger’s solo feature directorial debut Barbarian, you can bet that it’s the latter.
In this case, the young woman in question is Tess (Georgina Campbell), an aspiring filmmaker visiting Detroit for a job interview. The stranger is Keith (Bill Skarsgård), a seemingly amiable and chivalrous bloke who kindly offers to let Tess take the bed while he sleeps on the couch to save her from weathering the Detroit streets by herself late at night.
Before long, Tess and Keith get to flirting. They share a bottle of red wine, gush about jazz, and then make the bed together (who knew there could be so much sexual tension involved in putting on a duvet cover?)
For the first thirty minutes or so, Barbarian leans pretty heavily into the “two strangers stuck together by happenstance fall in love” option. But then again, despite the undeniable chemistry that Campbell and Skarsgård foster, Cregger never really lets you believe that that’s all that’s going on. From the very first moments, he and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein build tension and unease in every shot by implementing wide lenses that move slowly throughout the house, as if taunting something to leap out at the viewer.
Adding even more to Barbarian‘s overall sense of uneasiness is a masterful and complex performance by Skarsgård. Despite being an undeniably affable and deftly charismatic young man, Keith has something ever-so-subtly off that neither the viewer nor Tess can seem to put a finger on. (And this feeling definitely isn’t abated by the fact that Skarsgård already solidified his horror icon status as Pennywise in It.)
But Cregger doesn’t take the easy way out. He refuses to fully feed into the notion that Keith is a creep who intentionally lured Tess into a remote residence in the middle of the night – but he doesn’t completely disregard that theory, either. He doesn’t let the viewer draw any conclusions for too long, and when I say this film will keep you guessing the whole way through, I don’t think I can stress that enough.
Barbarian truly kicks into action when Tess decides to explore the Airbnb’s basement (because that’s never led to anything bad in the history of horror movies). Halfway through, though, Barbarian undergoes a complete 180. I’ll leave the viewer to experience this twist for themselves (which, be assured, is the first of many), but I will say that it strengthens the story immensely while also featuring one of the greatest surprise-casting moments of the year.
Indeed, if I had to pick Barbarian’s greatest strength, it would be its ability to nimbly keep its viewer guessing without ever implementing a twist for twist’s sake. But with films that are so unpredictable, it can be hard to deliver a truly satisfying ending, and sadly, this one doesn’t completely stick the landing. In the third act, Cregger is too intent on pursuing multiple threads, which leaves it a bit of a mess. This is disappointing, not only because he flawlessly teases out the suspense for the majority of the film, cutting to a new setting every time the metaphorical elastic band is ready to violently snap, but also because the script, which he also wrote, is whip-tight, with nearly every ounce of fat trimmed right to the bone.
But despite falling into some cliched horror traps and a cluttered, overstuffed ending, Barbarian succeeds in what it sets out to be: an original horror movie that is really, really freaking scary. The sets are nauseatingly claustrophobic. The big reveal is guaranteed to get under your skin both visually and psychologically, the jump-scares are well-earned, with each more jarring than the last, and Campbell’s fear is palpable – each blood-curdling scream delivering her effortlessly to scream-queen status. Yes, much like its characters, there are a few times that Barbarian takes a wrong turn down its dreaded corridors. But despite this, there’s no doubt that it’s one of the year’s scariest movies and that Cregger is an up-and-coming horror icon to look out for.
Barbarian hits theaters on September 9. Watch the film’s trailer here.