Barbarian (2022)

To me, one of life’s simplest pleasures is going to the movies during the day, especially when it’s a weekday and there’s virtually no one else around. Of course, it’s pretty rare to be the only person or party in the theater; in my life, it’s only happened twice: when I was in the seventh grade and my mom picked me up from school early for a doctor’s appointment and then we went and saw Mission to Mars together, and on a recent Friday that I had taken off of work for a reason that fell through, so I went to a bunch of estate sales and then to see Barbarian. I have one friend in particular who absolutely refuses to watch movies during the day; she feels like it’s a waste of daylight and, hey, she’s certainly entitled to her opinion and whatever relationship she chooses to have with my longtime nemesis The Sun. For me, I love the experience of going into a dark theater and going on a complete emotional journey, only to stagger out into the daylight afterwards a changed person. It makes me feel like one of the Pevensie children stumbling back out of the wardrobe after a lifetime as royalty in another place, or Captain Picard when the Ressikan probe made him live a whole life in “The Inner Light” (or any of a hundred other examples, really). To be honest, that’s the closest thing I think we have to real magic in this world, other than magnets.

TW: Sexual assault.

Barbarian didn’t really change me. I didn’t come out of it a different person like I did when I stumbled out into the sun after seeing Mission to Mars twenty years ago (I’m not claiming it was a positive change) or True Stories in re-release five years ago. But it was a lot of fun and mostly maintained my attention. Written and directed by Zach Cregger, formerly of The Whitest Kids U’ Know and in his first directorial outing since his much-derided freshman feature Miss March, the film stars Georgina Campbell, who appeared in both the excellent Broadchurch and the well-received “Hang the DJ” episode of Black Mirror. Campbell is Tess, a woman visiting Detroit to interview for a research assistant position for a documentary filmmaker. She finds herself in an unenviable and stressful position when she discovers that the house she has rented on AirBnB is already occupied: by Keith (Bill Skarsgård), who claims to have booked the same house on HomeAway. They verify that they have the same (unmonitored) phone number for the property manager and Keith shows Tess his confirmation email. Tess is understandably less than enthused about the situation but is unable to find alternative accommodations, and ultimately she acquiesces to sleeping in the bedroom of the house while Keith takes the couch. She awakes in the night to find her door open and startles Keith awake, but the night is otherwise uneventful. She attends her interview and it goes well, and her presumed future employer warns her not to stay in the neighborhood that she’s in any longer than she has to. Back at the house, she has a frightening encounter with an unhoused person before accidentally locking herself in the basement while looking for toilet paper. While waiting for Keith to come back so that he can help her, she discovers a hidden door and a secret room, which terrifies her. Keith does come back and assist, but insists on seeing the room for himself, and eventually stops responding to Tess…. 

From there, we jump from the dark basement to sunny California to meet our third lead, sitcom star AJ Gilbride (Justin Long). He’s living the dream, or so he thinks, when he gets a call from two studio executives, who inform him that he’s just been #MeToo’d and that his accuser’s story will be front page news the following day. A survey of his finances leads him to consider selling some property, and the first place that he can think of is the house he owns in Detroit, so he flies back to Michigan (unwisely leaving the state, giving that it makes him appear that he’s fleeing) and enters the house, finding evidence that the house may still be occupied. We also learn that the home once belonged to a man named Frank (Richard Brake), who took up residence there during or before the 1980s, and that Frank was a serial kidnapper among the least of his crimes. 

Barbarian is a weird little picture. In his article “The Search for this Year’s Malignant,” Brandon makes a connection between this film and Don’t Breathe, which ranked fairly high on my list of top films for 2016 while being completely absent from everyone else’s, and I was also thinking about the two films in conversation with one another while sitting in the (empty, empty) screening of Barbarian. Both use the veritably post-apocalyptic vibe of many of the city’s neighborhoods to increase the overall sense of unease, but Barbarian makes the decline of the city a part of its text: when we see Frank leave his house to get, eh, “supplies,” it’s not merely his house that is in pristine condition, but the neighborhood as a whole. He drives a huge, American-made car and has an interaction with the next door neighbor that reveals Frank’s neighbors are planning to sell their house and move soon, since the wife is worried that they won’t be able to sell it the next year (Frank, for his part, ominously claims that he will never leave). Frank’s house in the present day is likewise well-maintained, but now it sits in the middle of a huge radius of homes that have fallen apart from disuse, squatting, fire, and neglect, which Tess, who initially arrived at night, discovers in the morning light. That change between the neighborhood of yesterday and today didn’t happen overnight, and Frank’s neighbors’ economic concerns about the future are proven absolutely right. Reagan himself is mentioned on the radio, the reminder that the ruin that Tess witnesses was the result of one of America’s most productive (and unionized) cities being crippled by his administration’s shift of power to the wealthy and the immediate movement by the wealthy to move manufacturing out of the American economy. The choice of Detroit isn’t a coincidence or merely intended to cash in on the city’s degradation, but a part of the framing. 

At its core, the film is a treatise about interpersonal interaction, most importantly how men treat women (more on that in a minute), and to a lesser extent, how people in general are treated by the system. The inciting event is the fault of the real estate agency that manages AJ’s Detroit property, as they fail to monitor their listings properly and allow a house to be booked through two different services; later, when Tess and Keith meet, the agency remains completely unresponsive and have no emergency contact information available for customers. Even when AJ comes back to the city and assumes that there are squatters in the house because of the luggage that he finds, the agency is unhelpful, can’t confirm when the last guests left, and cite that they only send cleaning services before the next guest (which, given that it’s been weeks, indicates that they’re not making sure that there are no corpses or bags of garbage getting septic in there even under normal circumstances); it’s enough to make one daydream about a Terry Gilliam picture about navigating the bureaucracy of short term rentals. More importantly, as in real life, the police here are not only useless, but obstructive. Although we don’t see it, given that the woman who interviewed Tess expressed concern about where she was staying, it’s reasonable to think she would have probably been concerned enough about not being able to contact her the following day that she would have asked for a welfare check-in, even if she didn’t file a report. But there’s no indication that anyone has been looking for her, and a later interaction between a character trying to get help and the police results in the officers treating said person like an addict and a troublemaker, and that’s not even getting into the dispatcher’s apathy when Tess is chased by a threatening figure. 

Each of the three men who own or occupy the house over the course of the film represents one of the ways that men treat women. Frank is clearly the worst, as he casually lies his way into a woman’s home in order to unlock a window for later abduction like a character in a Thomas Harris adaptation. I won’t get into what exactly is happening in that basement in the 1980s, but it’s sickening, and the trophies that he keeps in the form of VHS tapes are labelled with chillingly inhuman descriptions of women who are deprived of even the dignity of their names, reduced to “gas station redhead” and “grocery brunette (biter).” At the other end of the spectrum is Keith, a genuinely decent person who knows—on a conceptual level—what women “deal with” on a daily basis, going so far as to notice that she didn’t take a cup of tea that he made her and then, when offering her wine later, makes it clear that he wants to make sure she sees him open it. Keith knows what Rape Culture is, and although he’s genuine, he’s also still a Nice Guy, living so fully and comfortably within certain privileges afforded him by his maleness that he’s shocked to learn that there are even more precautions that Tess undertakes than he knows about. And although the banal evil of real estate apathy may have kicked off the events of the film as we see them, it’s Keith’s cat-killing curiosity about the creepy basement room despite Tess’s very rational statement that they need to leave that causes the rest of the film to happen. Even a nice guy is still a guy. In the space between Keith and Frank, not the “middle” per se but on that spectrum, is AJ. He almost definitely did what he’s accused of doing, and his denials of what happened, which he attempts to explain away as his having had to “convince” his accuser, don’t even seem to be convincing to himself when he recites them (the situation most reminded me of the accusations leveled against Aziz Ansari a few years back). 

I won’t lie and say that I never got bored during this one. A friend who saw it on a different day said that it felt like a Netflix series, and as Brandon pointed out in the above-linked article, the sketch-like segments don’t always pay off equally. The reveal is more functional to me than exciting, and there were a few moments when I was surprised the film hadn’t ended yet. I wish that the film had included a few more comedic beats during the long stretches of drama, because when Barbarian is funny, it’s very funny; the bit where AJ discovers a creepy kidnap room in his basement and immediately researches whether he can include it in the square footage for the real estate listing is, frankly, inspired – and comes back around in an important way. Cregger demonstrates a real ability to set the mood (one of my favorite bits of visual storytelling is when the dryer with the sheets in it has completed its cycle, but Tess and Keith are still enjoying each other’s company), but I would love to see him break it just a little more. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

4 thoughts on “Barbarian (2022)

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