Every time you think you have Barbaric understood, you would be wise to think again. There’s a trapdoor you haven’t noticed yet, and it will open to an uncharted hallway filled with untold depraved possibilities. (And maybe a dungeon.)
On the surface, The whitest kids you know Alum Zach Cregger’s first horror film is a slightly chilling modern fable: English actress Georgina Campbell (black mirror) plays Tess, a young woman who shows up at her Airbnb one rainy night to find it’s been double-booked and the other guest happens to be Bill Skarsgård. Stranded with a stranger in the only immaculate house in a rundown Detroit building, Tess prepares for a job interview even as things go from weird to downright terrifying. As for the real danger that awaits Tess, the call might actually come…you know.
Halfway through the film, however, we come to an abrupt cut that introduces the new star of the series: Justin Longgiving one of his best (and most disgusting) performances in years.
While the first act of Barbaric leans into a Hitchcockian foreboding, its payoff is pure pulp – a B-horror-inspired twist that puts this movie in a category similar to James Wan’s clever. (Thanks to the underground horror element and Detroit setting, comparisons to 2016 don’t breathe wouldn’t be unfair.) In doing so, the film catapults itself from capable but underwhelming bedroom horror into something truly memorable. Still, for some, the landing might ultimately feel a bit shaky.
First, however, there’s Tess, a clever woman whose actions, like so many horror characters, often defy common sense. For one thing, when she first shows up at the house and finds out that a guy named Keith (Skarsgård) has already checked in, she makes sure to see his confirmation email before getting too comfortable. Minutes later, she takes him at his word that everywhere else in town is booked through convention—no follow-up questions, not even a quick look at Expedia in case there’s a cancellation at the local Marriott. (Come on, Tess, you’re better than that!)
Tess’s actual degree of intelligence may be inconsistent, but Cregger manages to create a quiet, formless tension around her temporary roommate. Skarsgård knows just how to mold his face to accentuate those chiseled features and bulging round eyes to the max – and it doesn’t hurt that he’s perhaps even best known for playing a haunting Pennywise in Andy Muschietti. This movies. So every time Keith tries to reassure Tess, the anxiety rises a little more – a deliberate drumbeat as we continue to wonder if this is all just an act. If so, when will the other shoe drop?
Of Classes Tess eventually decides to explore the rental’s basement, and when she does, that’s when things really start to get weird. It’s also now that Long’s character speeds up the proceedings (literally, via a sports car) in a tour de force of an ostentatious counter-type comedy.
Long’s reputation might scream “lovable geek” – those of us over a certain age can almost certainly remember his “Apple Guy” period – but in Barbaric he plays a real bully, a consummate Hollywood asshole named AJ who is being “cancelled”. It turns out the consequences of AJ’s actions are going to be very costly, so he books a flight to Detroit, where he hopes to sell a rental property, as soon as he takes some action.
A rich and powerful asshole makes a torture victim far more entertaining than a well-meaning job seeker, which might explain why Long’s performance also indicates Barbaricchange of tone. The suspense gives way to a labyrinthine house of horrors (literally and figuratively), and any pretense of restraint goes out the window with panache.
Fittingly, then, Long’s performance is perfectly in line with Barbaricit is bravado. The only times the film stumbles come when it seems to guess itself. At times, Cregger’s script can seem to reach for a meaning that isn’t there – or gesture towards it with somewhat lazy tropes. (Example: At one point, Tess’ only savior happens to be the homeless man she called the cops a few days before; minutes after he saves her, this man dies a brutal death for a cheap jump scare.)
But these moments are few and far between. Although Barbaric largely remixes ideas we’ve seen before, even Airbnb Horror Movies are nothing new at this point, he does so with humor and panache. (And also one of cinema’s most unsettling scenes involving a baby bottle.) Campbell growls through his role with palpable tenacity, Skarsgård runs the gamut from quietly scary to downright unnerving, and Long spins in some of his best. works. It’s all so good that I’ll even look past that unforgivable (but totally unavoidable) needle drop at the end.