Review of Zach Cregger’s Surprisingly Suspenseful ‘Barbarian’
It’s a dark and stormy night. If that’s not scary enough, Tess is in Detroit. She hops out of her car and dashes to the front door only to find the key is missing from the lockbox. Her Airbnb has been double-booked and a confused and sleepy man answers the door. When Tess agrees to ‘come in,’ we veterans of the horror genre know exactly where this movie is headed. The only problem with our theory is that writer-director Zach Cregger has made it his mission to mess with our heads – and the genre – by confounding us at every turn.
In Barbarian, Georgina Campbell (“Broadchurch”) plays Tess and Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise in IT, 2017) is Keith, the settled Airbnb tenant. The two actors are superb during their awkward encounter, as Tess comes across as an intelligent and cautious woman, fully aware of the red flags in this situation. Keith is a bit shy, yet polite and accommodating – and also aware of what might make Tess uncomfortable. But Keith looks exactly like the guy who played Pennywise, so Skarsgard’s look results in the perfect contrast with this character’s demeanor. Keeping us viewers (and Tess) on our toes.
It’s really the structure of the storytelling that gives this one a creative punch. Cregger serves up 3 different perspectives and then tries to wrap things up in a final act. I actually found all three puzzle pieces well done and interesting, leaving only the wrap-up a bit lacking. In addition to Tess and Keith, we get Justin Long as a cocky actor named AJ cruising along the California coast in his convertible, singing along at full pitch. A phone call abruptly shifts the tone and soon AJ is on a flight leading him to the front porch of a rental property he owns in Detroit. Yep, the same Airbnb Keith and Tess double-booked. Thirdly, there is a flashback to well-kept homes with perfectly manicured lawns. Right again, the same house a few decades earlier before blight took over the neighborhood. It’s in this stage where we note the homeowner (played by Richard Brake) follows a young woman home from the store and gains entrance under false pretenses.
If this seems like a lot to tie into one horror film, that’s because it is. We’d like to know more about Tess. We welcome AJ’s natural sarcasm, and Brake’s early years could have been the creepiest of the bunch. Cregger excels at atmospheric tension, especially in the always dreaded dank basement with hidden hallways and secret rooms. He’s also clever with his misdirection and inclusion of contemporary issues like the immediate ramifications of accusations, and the defensive mode that women must maintain when deciding to accept a cup of tea. I certainly enjoyed the jolting cuts from one storyline to the next. However, I will admit to feeling frustrated that Tess was set up as such an intelligent person, only to make multiple decisions that force us to suspend disbelief. A trait of far too many horror films.