Perhaps it is inevitable that a horror movie titled “Barbarian” should prompt its viewer to ask who after all is the “real” barbarian. It certainly feels obligatory, and surely no self-respecting horror picture in the year 2022 would be worth its salt if it failed to suggest, dear viewer, that the true barbarian was you all along. But what is important about Zach Cregger’s new feature is that it does not forget, in the meantime, to be scary. It is a bona fide horror film, which, in the contemporary landscape, makes it something of an oasis.
Given the extent to which “Barbarian”’s essential structure consists of a procession of crescendoing horrors, it is best to go into the film more or less blind. Still, it is probably not giving too much away to say that the film begins in that most classic of horror settings: a haunted house, on a dark and stormy night. The movie’s first shot, depicting this house, is theatrically heightened and not exactly naturalistic. It makes for a bold opening, one that announces that the picture to follow will be unabashed in its genre.
And so it is, indulging deliciously in shadowy spaces and poorly-lit passages down which its protagonists would be well-advised not to go. Though the particular horrors “Barbarian” serves up are original, its basic elements are familiar, and the picture executes them well: Georgina Campbell performs ably as a tough heroine whose curiosity makes the viewer want to scream at her not to go in there, for God’s sake, what are you thinking. (At one point, some Peelean survival instinct prompts her to step away from the danger with a quite sensible “Nope.” Seconds later, this instinct vanishes.) Bill Skarsgård is suspensefully, delightfully ambiguous until he very suddenly isn’t. Justin Long — but it is best to forget, going into the film, that Mr. Long is in it; here the woods are thick with spoilers.
It is Justin Long’s character, AJ, who is responsible for its unpleasantly starchy aftertaste of didacticism. “Barbarian” is perhaps most fundamentally a chronicle of violence against women, and it is at its most affecting, both dramatically and in its horror, when it keeps its discourse about this theme subtextual. AJ’s arc is the movie’s strongest gesture toward overt commentary, which is why, though watching it play out is entertaining and compelling, one feels — as the credits roll — the vague sense of having just read a particularly long Twitter thread.
Still, this does not wholly damn “Barbarian,” and it certainly does not consign it to the ranks of that “elevated horror” dreck, like 2018’s “Hereditary,” — which uses ostentatious shot construction and heavy-handed theme deployment as a substitute for good filmmaking and real scares. “Barbarian” does not imagine itself too good to be scary, nor is it ashamed to be a horror movie. It unfolds itself with energetic surety and an engaging structural boldness that makes the picture. The film’s single best moment, about midway through, is not scary at all but is so formally audacious as to inspire delight (viewers should bear in mind Marx’s comment that all history occurs twice: first as tragedy, then as farce).
And, as a chronicle of violence against women, as a commentary on such violence and its barbarity (a concept that, no viewer should forget, comes to us as an initially ethnic one, coined by the Greeks and then adopted by the Romans to designate those not like themselves), “Barbarian” works precisely because of its formal boldness and shameless horror-ness. If the picture were unfree in its movement and timid in its genre, it would be stale and unscary; if it were stale and unscary, it would be without dramatic weight; if it were without dramatic weight, it would be without thematic weight.
“Barbarian” is not a perfect movie. Some of the scares are contrived; many of the plot twists are predictable. But at least it tries, and in this respect it stands apart from certain horror films of late made with a self-conscious artistry that fails to realize that the real barbarity is itself.
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