How comfortable do you feel heading to that Airbnb reservation? Did that question prompt you to panic and double down to read through your upcoming host’s reviews? Well, Barbarian might inject a bit of anxiety the next time you do so. Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) heads to a cozy Airbnb in a severe thunderstorm before her upcoming job interview. When she goes for the key, it is not in the lockbox. While Tess calls the host, a light goes on in the house. This is where she meets Keith (Bill Skarsgård), a stranger from New York who also booked the same Airbnb and has made himself at home.
You could imagine this is quite the predicament — it’s pouring, the house is in a broken-down neighborhood, and it’s late. These are benchmarks where previous horror films start their tales. Why on earth would Tess even think of staying with this person? That’s where writer/director Zach Cregger moves to subvert expectations constantly to throw the audience off. Keith is eager to show Tess that he’s not a threat. He offers her tea (that she didn’t ask for), insists on drinking wine left in the house, and even gives up the bedroom for Tess to sleep in. These overtures feel a bit out of sorts, making the audience notice that SOMETHING terrible could happen at any moment. However, things are happening in the background.
Doors slowly open, and the camera nudges to a basement door. While Tess and Keith make a slight connection, that uneasiness remains. When you feel like you have a handle on what’s happening, the secret about what lies at the bottom of the lower level reveals itself. The “spooky thing in the basement” trope has been done many times — it’s how Cregger leverages it to freshen things up. At points, Barbarian feels like a haunted house, where the point-of-view switches implore you to move from room to room quickly. The pacing doesn’t allow logic to grab hold of the story the film is seeking to tell until the third act. Some may find that exhilarating, while others might think it’s tedious.
The evil within the unsuspecting house (I’ll leave that for you to discover) is harshly macabre. Everything begins to form in a narrative sense once Hollywood actor and owner of the rental, A.J. (Justin Long), slides into the fold. He’s riding high and singing in his convertible until he gets a call from his agent that an actress is accusing him of doing something horrible. A.J.’s entire world immediately unravels as his focus lies on salvaging his career rather than atoning for what he’s possibly done. To lie low, he goes to his property to sell it to recover some funds — but we all know it will not be that easy.
On the surface, Barbarian feels like a fun hedge maze of “what could go wrong now?” Cregger strives to leverage themes of the 80s and 90s to his advantage in a fun way. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein combines the thickness of the atmosphere of the house and the unkept, somewhat dangerous surroundings containing it as dual images of each other. Anna Drubich’s music choices dance between the spaces where your mind is guessing what exactly the hell is going on here.
Who exactly is the Barbarian? With every male character introduced, the word’s definition means something different. Given another aspect of the decaying neighborhood in Detroit and a flashback to 1980s Reagan America, Cregger also ventures to show how evil can hide in plain sight until it’s unable to be contained anymore. Barbarian slightly falters when it has to take a breath or two, but not enough to derail the scares and laughter. Why do we feel so at home in the dwelling place of others? Well, you might take a second glance (or two).
Photo Credit: 20th Century Studios