When Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her short-term rental in Detroit, she finds the lockbox empty and a strange man — Keith — is already there. Keith (Bill Skarsgård) also booked the house through a competing service. “I’m renting this place,” Tess protests. “I booked it on Airbnb. like, a month ago.” “I booked it on HomeAway,” says Keith. Apparently, the property management company has listed the property on several services and is doing a poor job keeping track of things. Keith insists she stay the night — the neighborhood isn’t safe — and Tess, against her better judgement, agrees.
As Tess and Keith warm to each other, Keith asks her what she’s doing in town. “Job interview,” she says. “A research position for a documentary filmmaker.” And now I have problems. Who books a house for a job interview a month in advance? Is that a thing?
Although Keith bears a striking resemblance to Pennywise with better hair and less makeup, Tess makes it to her job interview the next morning. In contrast to the run-down, possibly abandoned Detroit neighborhood her Airbnb is in, Tess’s documentary filmmaker works in a posh office downtown. And again I wonder — Tess gets scheduled for an interview a month out by people with apparently a fair amount of money and they don’t arrange lodging for her? I’ve interviewed for tiny, barely profitable companies and they at least put me up a night at the Days Inn.
Attention to detail is not really Barbarian’s strong suit. Neither, to my mind, are scares. But Barbarian has plenty of talk. At one and three-quarter hours, the movie runs down a lot of the last five years greatest social media hits. In the conversations between Keith and Tess, we learn a lot about privilege and how women always have to be on their guard against nice men. AJ (Justin Long) is a disgraced actor confused about sexual consent and facing a #MeToo moment. Finally, there’s some ACAB messaging to round everything out.
It’s all very contemporary and very on-the-nose. “The world’s different for you,” lectures Tess. “Guys get to blast their way through life making messes. Girls have to be careful.” At another point, AJ philosophizes out loud. “I don’t know if I’m a bad person,” he says. “But I might be. I might be a bad person. Or maybe I’m… I’m a good person who just did a bad thing.”Perhaps you will say, “hey John, horror audiences are not known for their careful, close readings of texts and therefore screenwriters have to make the points loudly.” Maybe so, but I know many thoughtful horror fans.
But the other danger with stating your themes so baldly is you then need to make really sure your story actually supports those themes instead of undercutting them. Barbarian doesn’t quite manage this feat, which makes me ponder whether the pontificating is performative pandering.Compare Barbarian to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which had a tight focus on themes of privilege, white liberal racism, and black safety. Every scare, laugh, and line of dialogue expressed Peele’s theme, but did so through action and subtext instead of expository lines of dialogue. Peele knew what he wanted audiences to get out of the movie. But he also understood that fiction’s actual power comes from exploring these ideas obliquely, not directly.
Barbarian is comedian / satirist Zach Cregger’s third directorial outing. Cregger’s known primarily for his work with the comedy sketch troupe “The Whitest Kids U’ Know.” Bill Skarsgård is, of course, Pennywise the Clown. Georgina Campbell has a pretty long list of credits, none of which I’ve seen — but she works well with what she has here, and I’ll be looking for her name again. Justin Long is familiar to horror fans from 2001’s Jeepers Creepers but has many other horror and comedy credits to his name.