In a different movie, it could be the beginning of a meet-cute. Thanks to a glitch in the system, two young, attractive, presumably hetero strangers have booked the same Airbnb house for the same night. Left with scant alternatives — there is, conveniently enough, a medical convention in town that’s consuming all of the hotel rooms — they must make it work by sharing the house. If the awkward situation can be alleviated by a bottle of red, so be it.
Alas, Barbarian is not a romantic comedy. The cockroaches skittering across the blood-red letters in the movie’s title font should tell you as much. But Zach Cregger’s feature debut as a solo writer-director is far from a run-of-the-mill slasher. To the contrary, it’s an appreciably patient, witty and confident genre exercise, a movie with a labyrinthine architecture both in its production design and its overlapping themes. Its grisly 1970s grindhouse vibe is shot through the lens of a 21st-century rot that’s both physical and ethical.
Barbarian is a movie whose villains are murky; they could be everywhere and nowhere, but we’re pretty sure Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) isn’t among them. Driving into Detroit for a job interview with a documentary filmmaker, she’s surprised to find her rental property already occupied by a young man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård). It’s the middle of a rainy night, and Keith meets the moment with a gentlemanly grace — he’s happy to give her the bed, and he’ll crash on the couch — that he continually undercuts with an overzealous desire to make the best of the situation. When he’s anxious to brew her some tea, we wonder, along with Tess, if he spiked it with something. Within an hour, he’s begun to treat their unplanned encounter as a date of sorts, or at least an opportunity to, just maybe, share the bed. Could Keith have set this entire scenario up for his benefit? Is he the title barbarian?
Suffice it to say, without spoiling anything, that Barbarian’s twists hurtle through time and space with a startling immediacy. Before we know it, we’re no longer in Detroit: Suddenly we’re on the Pacific Coast Highway in California, and up-and-coming director AJ Gilbride (Justin Long), a flawless composite for a certain type of entitled Hollywood bro, receives a notice that a cast member with whom he is working has accused him of rape. Is AJ the barbarian? (“I did have sex with her,” AJ tells a friend at a bar. “She needed some convincing …”)
The news will be made public in the morning, and he is instantly a persona non grata in Los Angeles, out of work and soon-to-be-broke. Were he to liquidate some of his assets, including a familiar Airbnb property in Detroit, it might buy him a couple of months. Like Tess, he’s soon to discover the house is more than it seems.
Complete with another unexpected detour — this time to the Reagan Administration, a time of deceptively greener pastures — Barbarian makes for an exceedingly unsettling cinematic experience, enhanced by Anna Drubich’s John Carpenteresque score, with its metal-on-metal screeching, its elephantine churns, its heartbeat-evoking percussion.
There is a monster of sorts in Barbarian, and when it appears, it’s a marvel of haunting makeup, lighting and acting, by a largely wordless Matthew Patrick Davis. But it’s not the monster of this unexpectedly sobering movie. The twin evils of Barbarian are toxic masculinity in the post-MeToo era and urban blight.
Indeed, the scariest aspect of Barbarian may not be buried in the bowels of an Airbnb; it may be the above-ground world itself. When Tess drives to her job interview in the harsh light of day, she exits a neighborhood of almost cartoonish neglect. Every house she passes is a derelict pile, overgrown with weeds, its windows smashed and roof caved in, a dented husk of an automobile rusting in a peeling driveway.
Perhaps this is the result of a deft design team in turning a battle-scarred street up to 11 to simulate an abject penury. But when Bill Maher reported, in the wake of the Great Recession, that the average home price in Detroit was $18,000, it was areas like this one that brought that statistic so tragically low. Even if our protagonist is able to make it out of this nightmare alive, this dilapidated blot on a great American city will remain.
BARBARIAN. Director: Zach Cregger; Cast: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long, Matthew Patrick Davis, Richard Brake, Kurt Braunohler; Distributor: 20th Century Studios; Opens Friday at most area theaters