Finding the monsters in toxic masculinity

Barbarian is a fun, frightening and creepy horror romp

Where: In theatres
What: Movie, 102 mins.
When: Now
Genre: Thriller
Why you should watch: A fun and satisfying watch, Barbarian has at its centre a familiar mystery that it delivers in exciting, new ways. Replete with cathartic dark humour, the film delightfully skewers in its stark renditions the ignorance of toxic men. Georgina Campbell brilliantly helms this thriller.

Penned and directed by Zach Cregger, Barbarian is a delight. With an irreverent sense of humour punctuating an immersive suspense (narrative, aesthetic and sonic) layered heavily like icing, the thriller takes a familiar mystery and sadds topical themes, ultimately delivering a kind of subdued horror that is simultaneously familiar and new. The film satisfies in interrogating the familiar and upturning all expectations.

Barbarian deftly plays with our expectations in super meta ways, setting up scenarios we have seen in movies time and again, but then going on to joyously upturn them at every turn.

The film begins with Tess (Campbell) arriving in a pitch-black downpour to a rather cosy-seeming Airbnb in Detroit that ends up being occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgård). Keith invites Tess to spend the night at the house, cautioning her that because the neighbourhood is shady, she will be safer with him than waiting for morning in her car. As the night wears on, Keith works in fluttering, nervous ways to pull Tess — who obviously wants to turn in for the night as she has a job interview the next day — into flirty conversation. Eventually, the two find shared interests and down a bottle of wine. The two end the night on friendly terms, the air thick with tipsy desire. Overnight, Tess is woken up by a strange puckering sound, with the door to her room having mysteriously swung open. When she wakes Keith, he says he has no idea what she’s talking about.

The next day, Tess finds a mysterious hallway in the house’s basement that leads to a, garishly lit, room with only a grimy mattress and a video camera facing it. When she tells Keith, he dismisses her fear as hysterics. He ventures down to take a look and is swept up by a horrifying figure. The film then cuts to AJ (Justin Long), who owns the house, coming up to Detroit in an effort to liquidate his assets. AJ has been accused of sexual assault and needs the money to build up his defense.

The rest of the film follows AJ as he discovers the house’s horrors, and it is spliced through with flashbacks that work to unravel the mystery of the creepy being lurking beneath the house.

The film excels at inspiring intense anxieties in viewers through classic but piqued horror tropes. Cregger, alongside Anna Drubich (who’s behind the film’s Hitchcockian score) and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, create such intense unease as Tess moves through the house. Frames linger before dark rooms for seconds that seem like minutes, Tess’s movements are buttressed by a grating score that swells to high heaven, liable to make every viewer squirm in their seats — these classic horror elements are wielded to wonderful effect here; they will have you hold your breath as you wait for the violence to erupt.

In this sense, Cregger and his team play with what we expect of suspense. We are used to suspense being swiftly quelled by the release of final horror, but in Barbarian, the story makes a home in the suspense — it is suspense.

But it’s not just aesthetic elements through which the film builds suspense: it’s also baked into the story through the dialogue male characters spew. The score swells during Keith’s and AJ’s words as though each of their words are leading to some kind of destructive horror — the suspense building with each sentence until Tess responds. The first act of the movie is splendid for the way in which it torturously lingers before Tess as she navigates Keith’s creeping insistence that they talk. Every time Tess turns down one of his advances and locks a door behind her, we let out a breath of relief.

Through Keith and AJ, the film explores contemporary ideas of toxic, violent and self-serving masculinity, depicting in stark relief how men navigate situations to achieve their own grotesque and reprehensible ends; and for this reason the film presents us the familiar. Most of us have experienced men as ingratiating as Keith or as scoundrelly as AJ.

The film is timely for the way in which it explores Keith’s and AJ’s predatoriness, either seeming or real. But the film’s innovation is its ridicule of these men: many of us would expect for Keith and AJ to emerge unscathed, to get their ways, for this is how the world unfortunately often works, but the film upturns our expectations again by humiliating them through the dialogue and by rendering them as something horrific.

Simply because the movie grafts suspense onto the everyday creepiness of these men, it shows them to be horrific, which is deeply refreshing. We appreciate seeing Keith’s words met with apprehension and distrust by Tess, who initially is not beguiled by his words, a beguiling that a lesser thriller might show. Tess is given an intelligence based in realism — most women know to be apprehensive of men, particularly slick men.

Ultimately, the film is satisfying in its aesthetic and narrative haranguing, meaning that though the mystery of the monster reveals itself to be rather familiar, the film manages to entertain because of the many tropes and expectations it upturns. The film is able to succeed for its unique handling of suspense even if, at times, the dialogue does seem a bit hollow — a character like AJ is rendered in broad strokes and lacks a kind of nuance as he delivers platitudinous and predictable accusations against women; his character doesn’t seem as real as Tess (who is complex as she feels both pulled toward and repulsed by Keith) and Keith (with his mysterious and beguiling intentions).

Barbarian is a fun time that, through compelling direction, framing and sound, makes a Hitchcockian meal out of something as fleeting and liminal as suspense. A decidedly fun watch, Barbarian will brilliantly crawl under your skin, will make you simultaneously squirm and laugh, all as you wonder who the titular barbarian might be — the monster or the men?

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