“Barbarian” may be the movie bargain of the year.
Never mind that gimmicky, $3 a ticket deal. “Barbarian” is three movies in one. Maybe four! How they all fit together is something writer/director Zach Cregger struggles with from start to finish.
And yet “Barbarian” is compulsively watchable, shrewdly crafted and only loses control in the final five minutes.
Georgina Campbell plays Tess, a woman hoping to crash at a rental home before a pivotal job interview in Detroit. Except when she arrives at the modest home it’s already occupied.
The mild-mannered Keith (Bill Skarsgard of “It”fame) also booked the home in question.
The two realize the rental company is to blame, but they make the best of it and split the accommodations. It’s a gentle way to start a thriller and, for a while, possibly the least expected “Meet Cute” moment.
Except the home in question has some secrets Tess can’t even imagine.
And that’s where the Official Plot Description comes to a screeching halt. To reveal more would spoil what Cregger has in store, and that would be darn near criminal.
“Barbarian” is a horror movie, no doubt, but the genre beats are treated with care. Some early camera work makes us uneasy, a perfect frame of mind for what follows.
But what follows, exactly?
The story offers distinct vignettes that clumsily fold atop one another. The more you think about them, the less they coalesce. And yet you’re invested from the opening scene, eager to learn the truth behind the shocks.
Give plenty of credit to Campbell, who proves resourceful as someone far smarter than your average horror movie character.
Until she isn’t.
Cregger has it both ways here, supplying real grit to the storytelling until the narrative demands genre cliches to push the story forward.
Does Cregger even know what’s at the core of his own movie? “Barbarian” plays out like random world building, and by the final moments we’re less eager to revist this landscape.
Your eye-roll meter will hit red, if that helps explain matters.
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Let’s hazard a few educated guesses. The Detroit ‘burb where Tess and Keith meet represents a civilization in decline, and the horrors that unfold showcase that reality. Those who escaped were the lucky ones.
Except the story doesn’t quite sell that angle.
A mother-child subplot suggests what happens when the young generation is neglected, but that seems like a stab in the dark, too.
Campbell and Skarsgard are quite good together, convincing as both wary strangers and two people who have more in common than expected. Justin Long appears, too, playing an arrogant actor accused of a terrible crime.
It’s the second Long movie this month that lets the veteran actor show his darker side.
— Bloody Disgusting (@BDisgusting) September 5, 2022
Every time “Barbarian” feels like it’s closing in on a final revelation the story does a head fake. We get a minor character who delivers some exposition in the grand horror movie tradition, but can he be trusted?
A key character confronts a terrible truth only to deny it seconds later in the most inauthentic way.
“Barbarian” may copy some genre beats, but its originality wins us partially over. Much like the year’s previous horror standout, “Men,” this is one shocker we haven’t seen before. We might have to watch it a few more times, though, to get the big picture – assuming there’s one to be found.
Gonzo horror can be wonderful, but “Barbarian” wants to be both a smart, slick thriller and a dumb as a doornail cult hit. Next time, Cregger should pick a lane, and there’s enough talent on screen to suggest he’ll do just that.
HiT or Miss: “Barbarian” is bold, fresh and shocking at times. It’s also a storytelling mess that loses the thread in its final, delirious moments.