Barbarian review: Expect the unexpected in crowd-pleasing shocker

Chris Tilly
georgina-groom-in-barbarian20th Century Studios

Barbarian is a horror movie that plays out in three distinct parts, starting tense, turning satirical, then finally combining jokes and scares so you’re laughing and screaming through the movie’s messed-up finale.

Barbarian is a tricky film to write about, as the narrative is cleverly constructed to hide the movie’s many secrets, resulting in a film that’s stacked with surprises.

Writer-director Zach Cregger knows horror conventions, and plays with those tropes throughout proceedings, setting much up early in the movie, but only paying off what’s relevant to the story he’s trying to tell.

It’s therefore best to go into this one knowing as little as possible in advance, so we’ll keep spoilers to a minimum. Though if you choose to drop out of this review now, just know that Barbarian is a BLAST.

What is Barbarian about?

georgina-groom-as-tess-in-barbarian20th Century Studios
Georgina Groom as Tess in Barbarian.

Tess (Georgina Groom) is visiting Detroit from out of town for the purpose of a job interview. She arrives late at night, and drives to her rental home in a particularly sketchy part of town. Only to find the key isn’t where it should be, and her house isn’t empty.

The door opens, and a man called Keith (Bill Skarsgård) greets her, claiming that the home has been rented to him. Tess is understandably perturbed, but Keith is nice, polite, and helpful. It’s raining so he invites her in to figure things out.

Tess hesitates, because Tess is smart, but Keith seems harmless enough, so she enters the house, and ends up spending the evening. They talk, and laugh, and fail to find alternate accommodation, so Tess stays the night. But then she hears noises from the basement downstairs, and Tess decides to investigate…

A horror film in three acts

That’s the bulk of Act 1, then Barbarian does a dramatic about-turn, and we’re suddenly in LA, in a sports car, driving alongside the ocean with movie star AJ (Justin Long).

The California sun is welcome relief from the darkness of Detroit, but then AJ receives a call from his people, and when he hears what they have to say, his own sunny disposition quickly turns dark.

It’s hard to see how this storyline will connect with what’s come before, but when it does, Barbarian makes total sense, paving the way for the film’s thrilling final third. And that’s all we’re going to say about that.

Red flags and loaded questions

We’ll avoid discussing any more of the plot, so let’s talk about the performances, as they are terrific throughout. Barbarian is a film in three acts, and it largely revolves around three actors.

Georgina Groom – best known for her work in Broadchurch, and as Lyta-Zod in Krypton – is the film’s star, and makes a winning horror heroine, imbuing Tess with bravery and smarts that have you rooting for her, even when she’s investigating the basement beneath the basement.

Justin Long is also good as the Hollywood star refusing to take responsibility for his actions, the film having fun with Long’s innate likability by having him play someone who is genuinely awful. The result is some of the Barbarian’s biggest laughs.

Bill Skarsgård – so good as Pennywise in It – delivers the film’s best performance, however. Keith is charm personified one minute, then vaguely threatening the next. Aided by a cleverly crafted script, he makes inappropriate comments, asks loaded questions, and talks in red flags, so Tess is never sure where she is with his character, and neither are we. Making that first act the maybe the movie’s most suspenseful.

Special mention should also go to Richard Brake, one of horror’s unsung heroes. Brake has done sterling work in the likes of Doom, Halloween II, and Mandy, and while we won’t spoil what he’s up to here, you also won’t forget his character in a hurry.

The Verdict – is Barbarian good?

Barbarian is a film that defies expectations at every turn. Zach Cregger toys with his characters – and as a by-product the audience – at every available opportunity, clawing them back and forth like a cat playing with a mouse.

The film has things to say, about the city of Detroit’s decline, and the toll that took on the people who lived there. And about the phenomenon of Airbnb, where we stay in another person’s home, knowing nothing of what happens inside their walls.

But social commentary aside, Barbarian is pure, simple, crowd-pleasing horror that’s filled with surprises and shocks. The kind of movie that grabs you early in proceedings, holds tight for the duration, then barely lets go as the credits roll.

So expect Barbarian to be on a bunch of year-end lists. Expect it to kick off an ongoing franchise. But above all – when you go into this one – expect the unexpected.

Barbarian hits U.S. screens on September 9, while it doesn’t yet have a U.K. release date.

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