With Jordan Peele proving that comedians can go horror-director, now enters director Zach Cregger. Cregger is one-third of the comedy troupe The Whitest Kids You Know and has starred in a number of comedy shows over the past decade. His movie Barbarian garnered lots of buzz during a round on the festival circuit. It has a simple premise: a young woman (Georgina Campbell) arrives at an Airbnb in Detroit only to find it is seemingly double-booked, with Bill Skarsgård as the other guest. Against her better instincts she decides to stay the night there, and matters ensue.
Barbarian is a difficult movie to review without spoilers. A strength of the film is its boldness to constantly play on your expectations and take drastic tonal shifts. For the most part this works really well and the shifts feel seamless thanks to Cregger’s creative use of jump cuts, music, and filters.
The film is quite scary, and the tension builds well. Many scenes rely on starring into the dark abyss of a subterranean area, and Cregger doesn’t cheat by adding any type of unnatural lighting, relying instead on humanity’s fundamental fear of the dark.
The cast is also quite good. Campbell impresses as the lead, possessed with a quiet strength and simple charisma that allows you to take her perspective with ease. Skarsgård is also a brilliant bit of casting, and Cregger knows exactly how to use him in this film. Entering later is Justin Long, who is excellent as an unaware, douchey character. Some of the film’s best scenes are during the segment where his character is introduced.
Close scrutiny reveals some flaws. While the film does a great job of playing on expectations and keeping you on your toes, it does so in part to deliver pointed commentary. The Peele comparisons are tempting, but whereas Peele’s commentary works with the plot of his films, it feels a little more ham-fisted here. Long’s character is so extreme that he’s too much of a caricature to deliver the intended points. There is a small moment of self-examination with his character, but it’s almost played for a joke.
The film’s internal logic also goes unanswered. In a sense, none of that is the point, but the film goes out of its way to ask certain questions and set up certain moments that don’t make much sense by the time credits roll.
That’s not to say Barbarian is bad, by any means. It’s like trying to enjoy a great rich piece of chocolate cake that is so crumbly you get a mess on your hands trying to shove it in. Luckily, messy chocolate cake still tastes pretty good.