Barbarian (2022), Zach Cregger [4/5]
Updated: Nov 14, 2022
It's an exhilarating trap of the horror genre that it can exploit fears and paranoias unique to a specific time to weaponize an audience's zeitgeist back at them. With the rise of Airbnb and other online rental platforms, there is a growing anxiety around staying in other people's homes; what happened in these halls, what secrets lie under the floorboards? Zach Cregger's postmodern patchwork of monster and psychological horror Barbarian (2022) targets this unease while incorporating a subversive look at #MeToo and the inadequacy of policing in cities like Detroit.
In the opening of Barbarian, a young woman named Tess (played vividly by Georgina Campbell) pulls up to her Airbnb in the dead of night to discover that someone else is staying there. Is it a case of accidental double-booking or something more sinister? To make matters worse, the actor chosen to play Keith the mysterious resident, Bill Skarsgård, is associated in the public imagination as Pennywise the murderous clown from It (2017), imbuing horror moviegoers with a meta sense of dread. Surely good-looking Keith is a psychopathic killer, using his charming mask to lure Tess to her death as we have seen time and again. However, writer and director Zach Cregger revels in flipping the conventions of schlocky horror movies on their heads.
As the forefather of many of these tricks, Alfred Hitchcock is often quoted for his discussion of surprise versus suspense. In the now famous "bomb theory," Hitchcock contrasts two possible executions of a scene. In one scene, two people talk at a table before a bomb explodes, giving his audience 15 seconds of surprise. In the second scene, the audience is shown a bomb beneath a table as two unsuspecting people talk above. What was previously a mundane conversation has been electrified and dramatized for 15 minutes of suspense as the audience anticipates the big boom. This is the line of thinking Cregger uses with Skarsgård's false antagonist Keith.
As opposed to cashing in on a jump-scare (and he sets up numerous, including the one where Keith helps Tess with her duvet cover and covers his face as the score prickles with the anticipation of violence), Cregger instead permeates the first half-hour of the film with nail-biting suspense in a game of friend or foe. The formal elements of sound design, lighting, and framing as well as familiar conventions of the genre act as Hitchcock's implied bomb, and we anticipate an explosion that never comes. In the end, Keith is just another victim of the real evil which comes for him and Tess alike, yet Cregger successfully saps a whole movie's worth of suspense out of mundane interactions.
A staple of horror has always been the use of not just physical violence, but also sexual violence, most apparent in the subgenre of schlocky sexploitation slashers in the 70s. With this in mind, Barbarian also subverts our expectations with its portrayal of #MeToo and a more realistic story of sexual abuse. In the second act, Barbarian switches to the story of disgruntled Hollywood producer AJ (played by Justin Long) as he is shocked by sexual assault allegations while driving around Malibu in his roadster. At first, the film withholds whether the allegations are true or false and humanizes AJ as he is dropped from his own pilot and wealth management firm and dragged in The Hollywood Reporter. We even see him call his mother for reassurance before bed and grovel about the girl who "set him up." This isn't the portrayal of the craven #MeToo monster we have come to expect from the headlines; it's a guy who's struggling to keep his reputation.
Without the money needed to defend himself in litigation, AJ heads to Detroit to make some cash from his Airbnb property, the same house where Tess and Keith's drama played out weeks earlier. Here, AJ connects with an old friend at a bar and we hear his account of the incident with the woman. He tells his friend, in colloquial "drunk bro" parlance, that he isn't a rapist and that instead the woman just needed some persuasion before she was into him. When they started having sex, she wasn't into it, but soon he had won her over. He tells his friend he's just a persistent guy.
Barbarian subverts our expectations again, taking what at first appeared to be a framed victim of the press and the HR branches of corporate Hollywood and revealing him to be a genuine scumbag. Despite the conventional horror story of the random rapist in the alleyway, statistics from RAINN suggest that in 8 out of 10 instances of sexual violence, the perpetrators know the victim: #MeToo would suggest that this person is usually someone in a position of power.
But what I found interesting was that Barbarian takes this more realistic portrayal of sexual abuse with AJ and contrasts it with a dramatic trope of the horror genre: the villain as a psychopathic serial rapist with an underground sex dungeon. Cregger grants AJ some dimensionality by contrasting him with Frank, a man who kidnapped, raped, and murdered a series of women since the 80s in a labyrinth under his house. Frank is about as evil a character as one can imagine. Seeing the tapes Frank has recorded of his victims, with labels like "gas station redhead," AJ recoils in disgust at the man and tells him he's calling the police.
Cregger cleverly dissects the identity of sexual predators in the popular imagination by having his Harvey Weinstein stand in judge his Jeffrey Dahmer stand in. There's a glimmer of humanity in AJ's eyes; is he a flawed fool who made mistakes or an irredeemable monster? Unfortunately, Cregger answers that question definitively with the ending, throwing away any complexity AJ might have gained over the film as he makes the unbelievably evil and cowardly decision to sacrifice Tess to the monster that pursues them.
Tess emerges as the hero of the film, the one character who was both moral and clever enough to evade death. Much of the story's violence could have been avoided if the police came to Tess' rescue, yet the establishing shots of dilapidated houses and streets overgrown with weeds picture a Detroit suffering from the post-Fordist collapse of the industrialized middle class. A consequence of this is a loss of police funding and the mutual trust that communities and police once had. When Tess dials 911, the operator on the other line says she doesn't have any units to dispatch to that part of town. When Tess finds a squad car herself, the officer tells Tess to remove her hands from the window as she eagerly recounts her harrowing escape. I'm not a crackhead, she tells the police. I'm someone who needs your help! In the end, the squad car abandons her to address a more urgent report, and Barbarian shows us that in some parts of town, people can't rely on the law.
With its critique of material conditions in "the hood," its realistic portrayal of #MeToo and subversion of horror's sexploitation elements, and its Hitchcockian use of suspense before an outlandish twist that shocks even the most seasoned horror moviegoer, Barbarian is a unique horror flick which uses the language of classic horror against the audience to keep them on their toes. If Jordan Peele (Get Out, Nope) and A24's Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) set the pace for modern horror, Zach Cregger is closing on them! Despite its flaws, Barbarian is worth a watch, 4/5.