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Barbarian is the next great horror-thriller
A terrifying premise comes alive with brutal set pieces and something to say.
Barbarian is a startling film, one that weaponizes audiences’ collective fascination with true crime by creating a premise so common that it’s universal simplicity makes it so chilling: a woman named Tess and a man named Keith are double-booked at the same rental home, causing the young Black woman to, through a series of believable contrivances, spend the night in the house with the white man she’s never met. As they get to know and become comfortable with each other, the house itself reveals a secret that will push Tess and Keith to the brink of survival.
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As usual, the less you know about Barbarian going in, the better. This is a film that revels in its structural audacity, drawing a lesson from Psycho (1960) for inspiration; it’s dangerous to get too attached to characters just because we meet them early on. It also recalls the suffocating, close-quarters tension of Don’t Breathe (2016), and both the subterranean surprises and social commentary of Parasite (2018). Director Zach Cregger derives hellish suspense from activities as mundane as going down a flight of stairs, while his screenplay avoids most of the usual pitfalls regarding character intelligence in horror movies.
While the second act goes far afield and the third act brings things back together, some will argue that the finale goes too far in certain ways, turning the movie’s “villain” into a bit of a Terminator and letting its subtext become too on-the-nose. Those criticisms are valid, but the film’s extended climax delivers from a visceral and an entertainment standpoint. The movie ends right when it needs to.
Performances are aces across the board, particularly Georgina Campbell and Justin Long. The casting of Bill Skarsgard was likely done very intentionally, and the intended effect does work. Editing is tight, camerawork is good, and Anna Drubich’s score is fantastic.
Barbarian is a rarity these days: a bonafide word-of-mouth theatrical hit with no bankable names and from a director with no real cache. That alone makes it something to celebrate; the fact that it’s the most physically uncomfortable moviegoing experience since before the pandemic is icing on the cake. If there’s any justice, Barbarian would be up for at least a couple of Oscars early next year. For now, let suffice it to say that the film is absolutely worth a late-night, lights-out stream on HBO Max.
Barbarian is currently available to stream on HBO Max.