In a rare moment for someone running a blog, I’m advising you to NOT READ BEYOND THIS POINT if you haven’t seen the movie. The less you know, the better. After you watch it, come back, so we can discuss it, please.
In 2022, horror movies are still doing original plotting I’ve never quite experienced before as a seasoned horror watcher, if I say so myself. This year’s Barbarian is a sterling, brutal and jarring example of what I mean. The film is written and directed by Zachary Cregger, who I’m not familiar with, but who apparently comes from the comedy world. In other words, the comedy-to-horror pipeline continues apace. It makes sense when you consider the twin poles of life: tragedy and comedy, and how they’re not quite twin poles of life at all, but feed into each other. Imagine your opening salvo as a director is this film. Goodness.
The best thing I do nowadays is avoid knowing anything about a film. I knew the one-sentence synopsis of Barbarian and that was it, “A girl goes to an Airbnb and the house isn’t what it seems.” Something like that. I never saw a trailer. I never read more about it. That’s how I want it! The less I know, the better, and in the case of this film, the less you know is absolutely better for the full effect.
Tess (played by an absolutely game-face ready Georgina Campbell) books an Airbnb in a rundown part of Detroit — it is a bit odd and a moment to suspend your disbelief that she would a.) book such an Airbnb given the delipidated and blighted neighborhood; and b.) that the Airbnb would even have good ratings, to be honest — but as it turns out, a mistake was made because Keith (played by Bill Skarsgård, best known for playing Pennywise in the new It films) also booked the space through a different rental company. They decide to share the space at least for the night, and they actually have a relatively good night of wine-drinking and laughs. The next morning, Tess is set to interview with a documentary director to be her researcher. Even that plot point seemed like a way for Keith to worm his way into Tess’ life by saying he knew the director’s prior work.
I thought for darn sure the set-up was exactly what it seemed: Keith was only pretending the room was double-booked to lure Tess in, abduct her and have his way with her until she figures out a way to escape. He gave off creepy vibes and that’s the brilliance of the casting: Because freaking Bill Skarsgård has that villain vibe! Even his awkward attempts to keep her in the house at every stage, including after Tess discovers an extra, unknown room in the basement with a bed, bucket, camera and a bloody handprint, he’s still trying to keep her there. Not only is there an extra, unknown room leading off from the basement of the Airbnb home, but a tunnel that goes even deeper underground. Keith apparently disappears down there, where again, I’m assuming he’s luring Tess to come to his “rescue.” Thereabouts 50-ish minutes into the film, Keith finally emerges from the darkness of the tunnel in front of Tess and claims to have been bitten by something. Again, I’m not fooled! I had that mofo pegged from the start! Seasoned horror movie watcher that I am, I got this!
Narrator: He did not have this.
Then, some large, naked … barbarian woman comes from behind Keith and bashes his head against the wall. Cut to black. Then, we cut to AJ Gilbride (played by Justin Long), a sitcom actor awaiting the pilot of his new sitcom to premiere, happily seaside sunny driving, singing along to the radio. WHAT?! That is one of the most jarring transitions in a horror film I can recall. To go from the darn dungeon below the Airbnb house where Keith — who I thought for sure was the psychopathic killer and instead had his head bashed in by … something — was brutally killed to someone we don’t know acting all cheerful and it’s a beautiful day … IS THIS THE SAME MOVIE?! What happened?! Not to mention, the fate of our female protagonist, Tess, is unknown. I just was remembering how she told the lady she interviewed with when warned about the neighborhood she was staying in, “I’m tough.” I sure hope you are, Tess!
As it turns out, AJ owns the Airbnb and has been accused of raping his co-star on the sitcom. He’s being pulled from the sitcom. As a result, he needs money to fight his legal battles and heads to Detroit to liquidate the Airbnb. While there, he goes out to a bar, gets plastered, admits to a friend that he was “persistent” in pursuing the woman (so, he raped her), and drunkenly calls her to tell her he’s sorry (he’s not sorry). The next morning while hungover, AJ finally begins to investigate what is going on in the house because it seems like two different people are staying there. He goes downstairs and discovers the extra, unknown room we now know about. Instead of being freaked out by it, he’s elated! In one of the most hilarious horror movie moments, Cregger cuts to AJ Googling if an unfinished basement counts to the gross square area when listing a house. He finds there is a technicality allowing it, so he takes a tape measure and begins measuring the unfinished portion of the basement, including the nasty room. Seriously. He then bumps into the additional door leading further into the subterranean area. He’s not terrified. Not even when he sees the cages. He’s elated! More area to measure and add to his listing! Seriously funny stuff. But the brilliance of it is that Cregger uses it as “punchline” to transition back to horror: As AJ’s measuring, something pulls the tape measure in the opposite direction. He’s attacked and thrown into a pit where we find out that Tess is still alive. Yay for that, at least.
Cut to the 1980s, in another jarring cut. We’re in the same neighborhood, but before the neighborhood was gentrified and blighted, when the lawns are still green and the people are still very white, and we find that Frank (played by Richard Brake) lived at what is the present-day Airbnb. Oh, and he’s a serial killer. When a neighbor said he’s moving and asks if Frank is going to move, Frank said he’s never leaving. We know Frank is on the hunt for a neighbor woman (we later see her dress in the basement). He’s not only killing them, but impregnating them in a rinse and repeat cycle, resulting in the Mother character, what the barbarian-like woman is called.
Then we go back to the present and the basement. The Mother is distracted by AJ because she wants him to be her baby and feed from her breast, so, Tess is able to escape. In another metaphor about gentrification, power dynamics, and police indifference, Tess goes to the Detroit Police Department for help only to be dismissed. That’s what makes Tess awesome and a morally good character we root for: She wants to go back and save AJ. She doesn’t know he’s an accused rapist. She just knows he’s a man in trouble. While Tess is dealing with the worst two police officers, AJ stumbles across Frank, still living in the basement, with dozens and dozens of tapes of his victims. Frank shoots himself in the head.
At night, Mother runs out of the house and Tess crashes her vehicle into Mother. Mother isn’t dead yet. But it gives Tess time to go back into the pit of hell to rescue AJ. In a moment I did predict, AJ, who has Frank’s gun now, shoots Tess in the stomach, wounding her because it was dark and he was scared. They emerge from the house to find Mother gone. They go down the street to a homeless man’s encampment thinking they will be safe. AJ has this moment that seems reflective where he says he’s maybe a bad guy or perhaps a good guy who made a bad mistake. This seems like an arc to reform our accused rapist! Mother emerges in the encampment, rips the homeless man’s arm off and beats him to death with it and then chases Tess and AJ up the water tower.
At that point, I knew the redemptive arc wasn’t coming, like it might in a different film, because AJ was sprinting past Tess, leaving her a few paces behind to be attacked by Mother. Once they both reach the top, AJ tries to save himself by yeeting Tess off of the water tower in the hopes that Mother will jump after her to save Tess, but kill her in the process. Miraculously, Tess survives because Mother cushioned the fall and AJ tries to play it off and gaslights the hell out of Tess. Instead, Mother is still alive and puts her fingers through AJ’s eyes and splits his head in half. Tess then picks up the gun and kills Mother, with another snap cut to credits.
WHAT A MOVIE. I feel like I need more time to digest. Subversive, sneaky casting, hilarious, terrifying, interesting, and with a memorable “final girl.” And of course, I’m always a sucker for, “We’re the real monsters.” In this case, Frank and AJ were the other meaning of the title “barbarian.”
What an unforgettable experience this film was. I need to talk to someone who has seen this movie.