The Hot-Button Horror of Barbarian

Horror has always been a genre ripe for social allegory: from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Night of the Living Dead to Get Out, filmmakers have smuggled potentially explosive commentary into mainstream entertainment through the guise of spectacular genre fiction. The gambit makes sense: audiences can more easily stomach a critique of their own culture, whether it’s racial hostilities or patriarchy or capitalism or any number of social ills that are being targeted, if they’re presented through visceral entertainment. The best horror movies aren’t effective only because of their jump scares or building sense of dread; they’re most chilling when they dissect real-world atrocities, with a lingering understanding that the horror hasn’t ended only because the movie is over.


Director: Zach Cregger
Writer: Zach Cregger
Producers: Roy Lee, J.D. Lifshitz, Raphael Margules, Arnon Milchan
Cinematography: Zach Kuperstein
Editor: Joe Murphy
Music: Anna Drubich
Cast: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long, Matthew Patrick Davis, Richard Brake, Kurt Braunohler, Jaymes Butler
Runtime: 102 minutes
Country of Origin: USA
US Release: September 9, 2022

In a year filled with acclaimed horror movies — 2022 also featured X, Pearl, The Black Phone, Smile, Watcher, Nope, Mad God, and many others — Barbarian might be the best example of hot-button horror. It gleefully tackles ripped-from-the-headlines subjects such as rape culture, misogyny, gaslighting, #MeToo, cancel culture, gentrification, housing inequality, generational trauma, and urban sprawl. The plot structure is calibrated with immaculate precision: a suspenseful first act dramatically switches gears right when it reaches a fever pitch of intensity, and there are several more narrative shifts afterwards which provide integral backstory or alter our perception of the characters. It’ll be tricky to discuss the movie’s finer points without giving away these plot acrobatics, but I’ll do my best, especially since Barbarian loses some of its power if you know what’s going to happen next. This was my second viewing of the film, and its weaknesses are more apparent now that I’m not as awestruck by its agile screenwriting. Even so, there’s much to recommend in Barbarian, and its ambition in reflecting the ugliness of our reality through a rollicking good time remains admirable.

Most of the film is set in and around a modest but charming house in the run-down area of Brightmoor in Detroit. Our apparent protagonist, Tess (Georgina Campbell), arrives at the house in the middle of the night, and is therefore unable to recognize that “run-down” doesn’t begin to define this neighborhood: its houses are crumbling, its public services nonexistent, its streets littered with trash, its buildings covered in graffiti. A flashback later in the film (which is unnerving for a multitude of reasons) shows that Brightmoor used to be a bright and prosperous (and predominantly white) neighborhood, filled with well-manicured lawns, cute little houses, and families with American flags waving majestically. Even in this flashback, though, we see the forces of suburbanization and urban exodus start to take place, as one white resident claims he’s moving his family out of the area as soon as possible: the crime and poverty are just starting to become too much, he says. The modern-day Brightmoor setting in which Barbarian takes place envisions an urban area that has been neglected, allowing all kinds of hideous brutality to take place behind closed doors. The police are indifferent to anything that happens here, as tax dollars and tourism funds prioritize other parts of the city. This is, in other words, a perfect breeding ground for horror, in which all kinds of transgression go unsanctioned.

But Tess doesn’t know this at the beginning of the film, or at least she thinks any neighborhood with an Airbnb rental can’t be all bad. The problem is, she’s reserved her Airbnb on the same night that another man, Keith (Bill Skarsgård), has checked into the house using HomeAway. As rain and thunder provide an ominous soundtrack outside, Tess stands in a cramped living room with a man who’s a complete stranger. Does she try to find other housing in the middle of the night? (Her attempts to reserve a hotel room elsewhere are stymied by a medical conference in town, which has filled up most of the rooms.) Does she trust the apparently kindly Keith and sleep in the bedroom while he crashes on the couch? The brilliantly effective simplicity of the first part of the film is that the audience can easily sympathize with either Tess’s or Keith’s plight (or both). Through a simple twist of fate (or the increasingly common failures of house-rental apps), two strangers are thrown together and forced to trust each other. When those two strangers are a white man and a Black woman, the potential dangers of trusting someone else grow even more perilous. Barbarian initially asks the audience to conjure their own fears and suspicions; there’s hardly a scarier thought these days than putting yourself at the mercy of another human being.

Tess and Keith do try a tentative cohabitation situation, and things go okay at first — until it becomes clear that someone or something else is in the house. The exact nature of that threat doesn’t become apparent until about thirty minutes in, with a shocking act of violence that puts a sudden stop to where we thought the story was going. (The obvious influence here is the best example of such an audience bait-and-switch in the history of horror: Hitchcock’s Psycho.) The aesthetic in this first part of the film is powerfully subtle and understated. The camera creeps and spies from a distance, lurking in the corner and viewing everything with icy restraint (credit goes to Zach Kuperstein’s cinematography). Cutting is minimal in this first act: whenever there’s an edit, it usually is intended to push the story forward or add a new wrinkle to our perception of the characters. Even when it becomes obvious that something wicked is nearby and the scares start mounting, the film takes its time building up a sense of dread. (Notice, for example, the several minutes that go by between the discovery of an ominous tunnel in the basement and the first time that someone trepidatiously enters it.) In short, Barbarian begins on an extremely high note, building tension through precise craftsmanship and by nudging the fertile imaginations of the audience.

Once the first act slams to an end with a brutal jolt, we suddenly leap across the country to sunny California, where a sexist, homophobic, aggressive Hollywood producer, AJ (Justin Long), receives a dreaded phone call that derails his career. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that AJ is accused of rape by an actress (we find this out almost immediately after we’re introduced to him); an ensuing Hollywood Reporter article, not to mention his own brash and unapologetic behavior, send him spiraling further downward, losing his job and most of his money. At first, the transition is boggling: what does this character have to do with the skin-crawling suspense with which the film opens? It gradually becomes clear that AJ, as a side hustle to make extra money, owns a few properties in his native Michigan, including the house that both Tess and Keith had been staying at. Before long, he’s back in the den of horror we’ve already come to know so well, exploring the house from a purely value-assessment perspective. (There’s a great dark joke where he discovers the subterranean tunnels beneath the house and immediately brings a tape measure down there to determine how much square footage comes with the property.)

The jump from Tess and Keith’s story to AJ’s (which do intertwine in a way) is hardly the only narrative gymnastics that the film performs. At another climax of fear and intensity, the film suddenly flashes back about 40 years to convey the origins of the sadistic horror that continues to reign free in this neglected neighborhood. The plot mechanics may be jarring on first viewing, but they are entirely logical and smoothly presented, not to mention thematically coherent: essentially, this is a story of how evil takes root in a seemingly average city, how toxic masculinity is largely responsible for that evil, and how (or if) a level of atonement can ever be achieved for those who have perpetrated unthinkable sins. A better way to ask it: are predators deserving of sympathy? I use the word predator very intentionally, to differentiate the several predators in Barbarian from the monster itself, which initially seems to be responsible for the movie’s carnage, though the real source goes back much further. The monster here is both victim and perpetrator — a common theme in monster movies (which we’ve discussed often on Camp Kaiju), though the theme becomes even deeper and more poignant here given the film’s sociopolitical subtexts. As humanists, most of us want to believe that flawed people are capable of forgiveness and redemption, that we’re not defined by our mistakes. But, the movie viciously reminds us, some people function entirely out of privilege, entitlement, and self-regard: they’re not capable of atonement since their first response in extreme situations is to exploit others for their own survival. In other words, Barbarian suggests, some people should be cancelled.

Barbarian doesn’t plumb this theme with as much insight or emotional power as Tár, for example (which I know is an unfair comparison — they’re entirely different movies). If anything, Barbarian suffers from an inability (or unwillingness) to follow the story to its logical, utterly hopeless conclusion. There is something of a happy ending here, which, although it makes for a highly satisfying watch, is exactly the wrong ending for a movie like this. In order for its themes of patriarchy and pervasive cultural amorality to hit home, Barbarian‘s worst, slimiest characters should be the ones to triumph in the end, and the most noble, sympathetic characters should be the ones to continue suffering. I know that sounds harsh, but the film might have been better if it had stuck to its captivatingly pessimistic worldview. As it is, the film ends with a crowd-pleasing moment of gore and retribution, but that allows us to think that the social rottenness in Barbarian is resolved and we no longer have to worry about it, when nothing could be further from the truth.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, without the thrilling shock value of Barbarian‘s plot machinations, the flaws of the movie do become more apparent. There are some questionable stylistic choices, like a few first-person POV shots that make the film seem like a cheap video game. There’s also a vagrant character, a Black man who lives at a water tower in the Brightmoor neighborhood, who’s by far the worst part of Barbarian and seems like he belongs in a 1990s John Carpenter movie. (The stereotypical nature of this character almost totally derails the film’s analysis of how urban areas, when neglected and left to rot largely because of their demographic makeup, allow violence and squalor to spread.) Another flaw is in fact something of a compliment: Barbarian can never get back to the shiver-inducing terror of its first half hour, which by itself probably would have been the best horror movie of 2022.

Despite these flaws, Barbarian is thrilling, suspenseful, surprising, complex, and ceaselessly entertaining (not to mention frequently funny). For a film that started as a screenwriting exercise for writer-director Zach Cregger, Barbarian ricochets from one idea to the next with startling freshness and immediacy. (I’m one of the many people eagerly awaiting Cregger’s next project.) The value of Barbarian might best be conceived by considering what it’s not — a dreary, obvious, sentimental, moralizing drama about the various racial, sexual, and urban issues plaguing 21st century America. There are enough message movies to fit that bill, and at least one will probably be nominated for an Oscar next year. I’d rather experience something like Barbarian, which instead of holding the audience at arms’ length grabs them by the throat and doesn’t let go for nearly two hours.

written by Matthew Cole Levine

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