'Barbarian' movie review: A brilliant horror package with a poignant point
It is possible that one could easily fail to understand the underlying narrative of this film if they do not understand the politics of gender violence and privilege
How often do you come across horror movies where the house is (obviously) haunted, not by pale paranormal beings, but by a by-product of a gender-oppressed crime? Barbarian is one such horror film that roots for empathy and leaves you with a compelling afterthought. Is it the living whom we should be scared of? Are monsters just the ugly physical version of perpetrators’ twisted minds? Barbarian explores these themes, without going into the gory details.
Barbarian starts off with Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) who comes to Detroit for an interview, and is made to stay with Keith Toshko (Bill Skarsgard) after their Airbnb gets double booked. There is no doubt that this premise can either go down the romantic route or the slasher-horror path. Given the eerie music and visuals, we know which line the film takes. When we see Tess feeling captivated by this total stranger in a dilapidated neighbourhood, we know what is to follow. Do we really see strange men being nice to women for no apparent reason? With Keith played by Bill (who did scare us as Pennywise from It), and him being overly conscious, kind and considerate of Tess’ privacy, our doubts can be sealed with regards to Tess’ fate. But that is only until the first act of the film ends, and the real ghosts are revealed. As the duo find some hidden passages, a video camera, and bloodied handprints, Barbarian takes you through the most unexpected twists, which is also a reflection of our sad realities.
Barbarian has a neat and individualistic three-act structure. Each has a completely different mood, sometimes making you wonder if it is the same film you are watching. But it definitely compensates when the narrative seamlessly weaves together, especially in the third act. As the brilliant Bill keeps us on the edge, it is definitely Georgina’s Tess that comes out brimming with fierce independence. Tess is a character that sets an example of how a well-written female character can shed off the misogynistic ideas of an independent woman. It is Tess who takes upon the onus to save men she comes in contact with, given she is living in the same world as much as all of us women live.
The world where men like to be in charge, but at the same time, men in power (in this case- cops) refuse to help when the situations are dire. Let’s talk about the character dubbed “The mother” in the film without spoiling much. The character breaks every idea that a man fantasies a naked woman’s body to be. She, in fact, could be billed as the embodiment of horrors that women have gone through over years. Is she the monster? Or is she only the residue of crimes that have been committed by a bigger fish, which is still lurking somewhere around the corner? This film answers all these questions with brilliant and poignant twists. There is also an appreciable intervention in the form of AJ Gillbride (Justin Long), an actor who gets fired after rape allegations are levelled against him. While this plot point doesn’t really contribute much to the overall narrative, the scene where he recalls the event of the night in question is quite a telling counter-argument to the dilution of the #MeToo movement by people defending the “honourable” men of the industry.
Given all this, Barbarian slips in certain places for its employment of the horror/single survivor trope and inconsistent chops at several places. It is possible that one could easily fail to understand the underlying narrative of this film if they do not understand the politics of gender violence and privilege. Barbarian takes the horror genre a notch higher, not with just the jump scares, but in the effectiveness of real horror it tries to tell. Are we mere monsters of the past? Do we create them after being consumed by heinous crimes? Are perceptions just a gateway for fake human facades? Or can mere bravery and empathy shield us from horrific crimes? Barbarian does not have answers to these questions, but it definitely raises them. And that’s important.