Barbarian is the kind of film that leaves you speechless—which is why everyone will tell you to go into it knowing as little as possible. Zach Cregger (Whitest Kids U Know) directs from his own screenplay, revealing a talent for storytelling that horrifically marries the absurd and the relatable. A plain description of the events of this film—which won’t be spoiled here—might sound like a prank from a masterful comedian. But Cregger steadily ratchets an escalating sense of tension that pulls viewers into the absurdity, making them believe an outlandish heart-pounding scenario. In other words, his debut as a horror filmmaker is impressive.
Described sparingly, Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at an Airbnb in Detroit to discover that it’s been double-booked. Her surprise roommate Keith (Bill Skarsgård) seems nice, but his presence immediately unsettles Tess. Keith eventually charms her into lowering her guard, but an eerie wake-up call raises those defenses when she discovers a secret passageway burrowed into her rental’s basement.
The mystery of what exactly is going on in (and below) this random rental property is compelling because Campbell does an excellent job of balancing Tess’ curiosity and her fearful recognition that exploring it is a bad idea. There’s a distinct impression that Tess has seen a horror movie or two, and Cregger brings a barbed comic edge to the dialogue and direction that Campbell plays up expertly, making her a fantastic protagonist to follow.
The fitful structure of Cregger’s narrative acts as a playful, tantalizing tease, as storylines drop at cliffhanger heights, only to resume after long, seemingly unrelated tangents and loop back around to familiar territory. It’s an effective strategy that binds the story around different characters, expanding the context of their choices while maintaining a tight grip on the contemporaneous action.
It’s in one of these “digressions” that we meet the extremely scuzzy AJ (Justin Long), who can be best described as a foil to Tess’ gendered sense of self-preservation. Barbarian has more on its mind than just shock value—effective as it may be at eliciting shock—by examining how violence radiates outward, frequently monstrously, from men who wish to control women, and who subsequently rationalize their harmful and violent behavior. Cregger impressively explores these themes in extreme and disturbing scenarios without losing a playful edge, or treating them with exploitative carelessness.
In fact, it’s mainly in the explanatory mythology where the film feels a little thin. There’s a shocking banality to some of Barbarian’s final revelations that largely eclipses the need for further explanation, but the one that comes anyway proves not just simplistic but almost dismissive. Consequently, Cregger propels the film toward a climax that feels almost too tightly edited, as his attempts to continually build tension undermine shots injected to give viewers a moment to catch their breath.
Even so, Cregger delivers an absolutely stunning addition to the horror canon. Barbarian is a twisted little film, a descent into a hell that is so achingly human that it loops back around as a funhouse reflection. It’s an extremely dark joke told by a master comedian, with a punchline that’s all the more horrific for the grains of relatability and truth sprinkled within. This outlandish, messy, compelling swing of a movie may not work for everyone, but its ambition, audacity, and sheer confidence should inspire awe even for those who feel like its parts don’t quite all fit together.