Lately, the art of crafting a subtle and captivating movie trailer feels lost. But the official trailer for Barbarian not only grabs your attention, it also manages to reveal the film’s critique of gender dynamics while keeping the main story line hidden from view. The preview teased a cut-and-dried game of cat and mouse, while in actuality the film weaves together multiple narratives in unpredictable ways. Out of respect for that feat, I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers here.
Barbarian introduces a situation rife with innuendo and unease: one stormy evening, a woman, the likable and savvy Tess (Georgina Campbell), arrives at an Airbnb in a dangerous and desolate Detroit neighborhood, only to discover that a man—lanky, pale Keith (Bill Skarsgård)—is already in residence. Apparently, the house has been double-booked, and when Tess can’t find a hotel room, Keith invites her to stay, offering to take the couch for the night; she has no choice but to accept. On account of his nervous chatter and wide, twitchy eyes, Keith’s awkward attempts at chivalry make our well-trained horror minds immediately suspicious. He must be setting a trap, lowering Tess’s defenses before doing awful things to her in the creepy basement, right?
But after a few glasses of wine, the situational tension between Tess and Keith becomes sexual tension. As they relax and begin to flirt with each other, Tess reveals that she’s going through a bitter breakup with a toxic and controlling partner, whom she “keeps going back to” despite her better judgment. This segues into a deeper discussion about social gender dynamics: Tess and Keith both agree that if roles were reversed and Tess had been the first to arrive at the Airbnb, she’d be crazy to answer the door in the middle of the night, let alone invite a stranger into the house. In a moment of foreshadowing, Tess complains that “guys get to parade through life, making messes, while girls have to be more careful,” and Keith mostly agrees with her, saying that “there are a lot of really bad men out there” but that “girls can rip, too.” The latter part of this statement will turn out to be truer than Keith could have foreseen, as the film’s chief villain is (on the surface, anyway) a woman—though one who is driven by a mad desire to mother, and whose twisted maternal instincts are a product of the sadistic manipulations of a barbaric man.
In his solo directorial debut and his first horror film, writer-director Zach Cregger proves adept at toying with his viewers, and the editing by Joe Murphy aids Barbarian’s delightfully unpredictable twists and turns. After the tension between Tess and Keith builds to a feverish conclusion, a sudden cut to black is interrupted by a bubbly pop song that jarringly rips the audience out of the dark basement and into a bright and sunny new narrative in which Justin Long’s boyish face takes center screen. As Long’s character AJ careens down the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible, top-down and carefree, he learns that the lead actress of the television show he’s starring in has accused him of rape. This development prompts him to liquidate his Detroit property to pay for his impending legal fees, and he quickly becomes entangled in the mysterious nightmare unfolding in the basement of his house.
Initially, AJ’s role as a stereotypical L.A. douchebag seems to function as the film’s much-needed comic relief, but it soon becomes clear that his character offers a broader critique of the insidiousness of misogyny and toxic masculinity. What begins as a series of short-sighted mistakes on AJ’s part borders increasingly on barbaric cruelty; he’s the kind of guy who “parades through life making messes,” and Tess is repeatedly caught in the crosshairs. Our heroine is not without flaws of her own—as Tess stated earlier, she has a problem with “always going back”—but in direct contrast to AJ, her selflessness endangers her. While AJ only looks out for himself, Tess seems incapable of putting herself first, making her the victim nearly every time. This extreme empathy proves to be a near-fatal character flaw. Time and again, she almost escapes, but “keeps going back” to save others, as though her deeply ingrained maternal instincts—or social conditioning—are impossible to kick. Meanwhile, a lack of empathy is what created the monstrosity that is terrorizing her in the first place.
Barbarian avoids any sort of didactic political agenda but offers thought-provoking discourse on culturally relevant themes, such as the effects of misogyny, sexual violence, male entitlement, the #MeToo movement, ineffective policing, redlining, gentrification, homelessness, homophobia, and even our cultural obsession with true crime. In the end, Tess’s selflessness grounds the story; she’s the person we want to root for, even if we hope she’d learn to put herself first.
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