Skip to main content
film review
Open this photo in gallery:

Georgina Campbell plays Tess in Barbarian.Courtesy of 20th Century Studios/The Associated Press

  • Barbarian
  • Written and directed by Zach Cregger
  • Starring Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgard and Justin Long
  • Classification R; 102 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Sept. 9

Critic’s Pick

How does the potential for gendered violence shape the way that women move (and are moved) through the world? While this question may seem too sobering a prospect for some horror filmmakers, it is the through-line of writer-director Zach Cregger’s new flick, Barbarian.

Cregger’s film follows Tess (Georgina Campbell), a young woman who travels to Detroit for a job interview, only to find that her Airbnb-esque rental home is already occupied. Keith (Bill Skarsgard), a disarmingly conscientious man, has already settled into the house and, after concluding that they have each been double booked for the rental, offers that Tess should stay until she is able to figure out other accommodations.

Keith is almost too eager to be of help to Tess and, like many young women, she is rightfully cautious of his intent. The opening chapter of Barbarian sets up a self-aware choreography of gendered apprehension: doors lock, IDs are checked, and drinks – even those poured in front of her – are refused. It is only when Tess and Keith are able to finally break the ice that she is able to let her guard down but, even then, never fully. Although it is clear that she comes to enjoy their impromptu evening together, Tess remains wary of him in a way that speaks less to Keith personally and more to the apprehension that many women must have of men if only as a method of survival.

Alongside the fact that their rental house is located in a wholly dilapidated and abandoned Detroit neighbourhood, Barbarian sets up its story by figuring Tess as threatened by something, whether it is Keith or the dangers of her location. Its effectiveness in establishing this tone and feel is made even more successful by the fact that Cregger totally upends all expectations, not once, but several times over.

While the film initially positions itself as a taut psychological thriller, it moves with a wonderful agility from this to a what-comes-from-below style gentrification horror, to pointed social satire, through to campy, gross-out revenge flick. Cregger remains one step ahead of his audience at almost all times, concocting a storyline that feels like a matryoshka doll of narrative upsets. Barbarian isn’t tethered down to any one type of genre mode or trope and – alongside its ability to craft scares just as easily as laughs – it feels like a mischievous and winking exercise in both timing and tone.

What begins as a semirealistic story in Barbarian descends into undoings upon undoings, seemingly devolving (but always with intention) into a sort of cackling delirium. Sharp twists build and ultimately culminate in the movie’s final acts as an almost senseless series of events that defy common sense but are undeniably oh-so-enjoyable. Refreshingly, Cregger doesn’t lose grip of the thematic atmosphere he had previously established within all of this madness, bringing home his point right until the final credits roll.

While it’s clear that Cregger isn’t going to win any awards for subtlety with this genre outing, it’s also true that sometimes you need to throw caution to the wind and go, frankly, full wacky. It also goes without saying that horror is one of the most fitting modes in which to flex this sort of batty muscle.

In truth, what Cregger best accomplishes with Barbarian is an unhinged sort of storytelling that nevertheless feels calculated in its design. It knows that comedy and horror are two sides of the same coin, and synthesizes both while also playfully knocking loose a screw or two.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe