This story contains major spoilers for Barbarian.
On the opening day of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, one film was on everybody’s lips. As I ran into other critics around town, they kept asking, “Have you seen Barbarian yet? You’ve gotta.” That kind of chatter is typical at a festival, but the only wrinkle was that Barbarian wasn’t even playing at TIFF. It was just a small-budget horror film that had been plunked into theaters in early September, a so-called dead zone for new releases. The title is cryptic, and the trailer mostly avoids imagery from anything past the first act. Despite these hurdles, the movie became a word-of-mouth hit.
Now that it has started streaming on HBO Max, I’ve received a second wave of messages from friends who are discovering it and are floored, baffled, or simply want to compare notes. Small-scale films, unattached to any preexisting intellectual property, face significant challenges to gaining a foothold with the viewing public, so Barbarian’s success is rare and heartening. It also speaks to a wryly intelligent selling point: The film’s story, much like its marketing, capitalizes on the simultaneous terror and appeal of the unknown.
Zach Cregger, the writer and director of Barbarian, has wittily described it as “Fincher upstairs, Raimi downstairs.” The first half is taut, high-concept storytelling that gives the audience no room to relax; the back half is a loopy, makeup-heavy monster movie. The film begins with Tess Marshall (played by Georgina Campbell) arriving one night at a Detroit Airbnb, only to find it has been double-booked: A mystery man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already inside. Caught in a rainstorm and anxious about a job interview she has the next morning, Tess decides to share the space. She keeps her guard up against Keith and notes several red flags in the house. Every detail is loaded with tension, including the glass of wine Keith offers her and the fact that he talks in his sleep (although he graciously insists on taking the couch and leaving her the bedroom).
Cregger mines her paranoia, the unsettling feeling that something is not right even as no actual threat presents itself. Get out of there, I wanted to urge Tess during the first 30 minutes, but I also understood the predicament she was in—she doesn’t want to appear rude to Keith or dash her chances at making it to the job interview. Her decision to stay is perfectly plausible. David Fincher sets one of the highest bars for depicting creeping dread; Barbarian doesn’t quite clear it, but it certainly offers a master class in wringing frights from both graphic violence and the viewer’s own imagination. (If you don’t want to be spoiled, you should stop reading further … and go watch Barbarian.)
After her interview, Tess explores the Airbnb’s basement and unearths a hidden door to a dank tunnel, which leads to a distressing subterranean room with a mounted camcorder and a bloody bed. She wisely flees, but Keith goes exploring and vanishes. Out of some mix of altruism and curiosity, Tess looks for him and finds even deeper tunnels—and a monstrous creature prowling within them. Keith is every inch the nice guy he presented himself to be, but unfortunately, he gets his head smashed to bits right as the audience figures that out.
I’d already be on board with Barbarian if it stopped there: a nice anxiety number followed by gory chaos in the basement. But just as the violence ramps up, Cregger cuts away from the entire situation and introduces a new character, AJ Gilbride (Justin Long). An entitled Hollywood actor, AJ is cruising down the highway singing along to Donovan’s “Riki Tiki Tavi.” The lighthearted switch is perhaps more of a shock than Keith’s skull getting pulped by a superhuman beast. AJ immediately comes off as villainous in his own right: He’s a sitcom star who has been credibly accused of rape by another actor, and his response to the charge is deep denial, both outwardly and inwardly.
But his connection to the story isn’t clear until, looking to fund his legal defense, he decides to sell his extraneous properties—including a home in Detroit that is, of course, the very same Airbnb we’ve become well acquainted with. Cregger’s brilliance here is that this second horror narrative is a mirror image of the first. Tess and the viewer spend the first act of the film on the edge of their seat, wondering what awaits them around every corner of the little house. AJ barges into the same situation with complete obliviousness, eagerly measuring square footage while ignoring all warning signs, such as the empty glasses Keith and Tess left out. Essentially, this horror movie gets to have it both ways: It offers an unselfish hero (Tess) whom audiences can support, and a wincing buffoon whose inevitable comeuppance they can root for.
Eventually, AJ finds his way into the basement, Tess reemerges, and the origins of the brute in the tunnels are revealed. Barbarian laces each narrative loop with sharp social commentary. Tess’s most reckless decisions are made with the goal of helping someone; she’s not stupid, merely noble, which infuses her arc with a sad vulnerability. Although the monster is the biggest physical threat in the film, AJ represents a vile, cowardly rot—the kind Cregger has likely noticed in powerful men in his industry.
The film never underlines who the titular barbarian is, but part of the fun is deciding for yourself where to pin that label. Plenty of horror movies are roller-coaster rides that drop us off after 90 minutes with little else beyond the message “Monsters are scary.” Barbarian serves up all the requisite thrills with panache, but it also provokes deeper, longer-lasting reflections. That balance is why the film has continued spreading so organically months after its release, and why it’ll keep tempting viewers down to the basement for years to come.