Barbarian (2022)

Zach Cregger | 1hr 43min

For those who forget what it’s like to experience a shocking, mid-narrative twist like Psycho’s murder of Janet Leigh for the first time, Barbarian has arrived as a confident, solid reminder. In place of a shady, roadside motel though, we have an Airbnb. Instead of Norman Bates, we have Keith Toshko, who has double booked the accommodation at the same time as our leading woman, Tess. Underlying the big reveal approximately 45 minutes into the story, we even start wondering just how far an overprotective “Mother” will go to keep her children by her side. Though the title similarly suggests images of an unhinged madman killing victims in a brutal fashion, the villainy of such characters in this film isn’t so straightforward as we might initially presume.

If anyone were to use Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece as a direct map of what to expect from Barbarian’s perspective-shifting, time-jumping narrative though, they would quickly come to accept that Zach Cregger’s film is anything but a rip-off. Clearly an aficionado of the genre, the first-time director delights in toying with his audience’s expectations from the start, setting up familiar archetypes we recognise from Psycho and other classics before turning them upside-down.

Part of this comes down to the inspired casting of both Bill Skarsgård and Justin Long, the former whose unusual look calls to mind his terrifying depiction of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, and the latter whose typecasting as a “nice guy” feeds into his role here as a famous sitcom actor facing rape allegations. Though the characters never meet, they effectively act as inverse mirrors of each other, and Cregger extends this formal connection to the sharp tonal shift between their respective storylines. In effect, what Barbarian presents us in its first two acts is a pair of narratives following the same path to the eerie basement of a relatively normal-looking house, and yet filtering both through entirely different contexts.

The first time, we join Tess and Keith as they investigate the secret passageways branching off from this cellar, where the putrid artefacts of the home’s previous owner are uncovered with squeamish unease, summoning up a deep terror in these unsuspecting young adults. When sitcom actor AJ arrives to scope out and liquefy his property though, all the same discoveries are made a second time over, and yet Cregger layers his exploration with a lighter, comedic tone, underscoring the utter stupidity and arrogance of the character. The moment he excitedly realises the possibility of adding square footage to its real estate listing, out comes the measuring tape, as he obliviously goes about measuring the same corridors and lairs that previously horrified us. Here, Cregger returns to the same low, canted angles of doorways at the top of staircases from before, distantly isolating his actors’ silhouettes in pools of darkness. While the suspense this time comes with the knowledge of what lies in its depths, its fine balance against AJ’s comical ignorance also effectively defines his specific brand of opportunistic entitlement.

This soon becomes significant when we compare his characterisation to the film’s third perspective, segmented in a flashback to the 1980s when the surrounding neighbourhood was a bustling suburb of families. There, we meet the house’s then-owner, Frank, an even darker distillation of AJ’s privilege and perversion. This act may very well be the stylistic highpoint of Barbarian, as Cregger submits his camera to long tracking shots hanging on the back of Frank’s head, following him through the machinations of his depraved plans. The environment feels brighter and more open than we have seen before, and yet Cregger still evokes a distorted claustrophobia of a different kind, stretching the frame out with a wide-angle lens while paradoxically shrinking the screen’s aspect ratio into a narrow, confined box.

The fulfilment of seeing all three storylines wind together within the house’s subterranean lairs makes for an exhilarating ride towards Barbarian’s final act, where Cregger draws a line between the homeowners who, much like their property, mask disturbing depths with unassuming exteriors. If there was ever an embodiment of the trauma created by such men, then it is that horrific creature lurking in the basement – a force of pure, maternal instinct, seeking to fulfil her most primal impulses through violent means. To divulge too much about her though would be to ruin some of Barbarian’s greatest thrills, and certainly its most heartbreaking tragedy. There are monsters of all types littered throughout this film, hidden away from society and behind facades of charm, and it is only through Cregger’s agile, shifting perspectives that we can discern which deserve our utmost pity.

Barbarian is currently playing in theatres.

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