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With “Barbarian,” writer/director Zach Cregger shows that he is a true jack-in-the-box horror movie creator, starting with a nightmare that might happen to any of us: a double-booked Airbnb. Documentary researcher Tess (a superb Georgina Campbell) arrives in a small house in a forgotten area of Detroit late at night in the pouring rain, where a sleepy man named Keith is already residing. She can see his reservation confirmation, he’ll take the couch, and she can see him open the bottle of wine someone left before he pours are some of the arguments he uses to persuade her to stay until they can resolve this.
Cregger, of the sketch group The Whitest Kids U Know and their frat comedy for Playboy magazine, “Miss March,” is well aware of the material he is using. His economical cinematography gently nudges it such that the optics of this woman putting herself in a particular vulnerability are uncomfortable. Soon, it will be time to investigate the basement. Without giving anything away, you probably shouldn’t go there or past the door that can be unlocked with a piece of rope. In this novel, effective dread comes in different sizes, sometimes as a result of aggressive scheming. Even when they are deliberately stupid, “Barbarian’s” eerie riddles and bizarre revelations nevertheless have plenty of visceral impact.
Did I mention that Bill Skarsgrd, who starred in “It,” plays the other Airbnb guy? Consider Skarsgrd’s presence, one of the film’s unnerving elements, as unsettling as the house’s countless secret, dark passageways, as another evidence that casting is an essential component of filmmaking. When attempting to communicate that he cares about Tess feeling safe in this weird scenario, the former Pennywise the Clown substitutes his relaxed presence, those round eyes, and his imposing figure for a panicked ramble. Is it merely a disarming gesture? Is Skarsgrd portraying a different seductive creep? This question gives “Barbarian” some adrenaline, and one of the best scenes in the movie provides the solution.
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Later, Justin Long arrives at the residence. His Hollywood hunk AJ is first seen speeding along a seaside road in a convertible, only to receive a phone call accusing him of torturous behavior toward an actress. AJ is more focused about his job and putting this incident behind him than he should be as someone who very likely did the aforementioned thing. Long is skilled at portraying the character’s genuinely horrible temperament, right down to a funny laugh-out-loud joke about how he got engaged in this Airbnb fiasco (“Barbarian” could be funnier, and its lack of more comic relief is a copout). This kind of film thrives on the decisions that its people make, and Long’s sleek creep is its most reliable framework.
“Barbarian” isn’t very innovative, and the fact that a killed Detroiter serves as a character doesn’t do much to dispel “Don’t Breathe” similarities, but Cregger’s project’s artistic motivations make it a daring oddity. The movie has a strong instinct for knowing when to cut suddenly and throw us from one bizarre scene to another time period or decade, giving the audience a chance to catch their breath before paying close attention to how the newest life story will fit in. Additionally, there is ambition in the way these fresh components are incorporated, forming mini-vignettes out of the various aspect ratios and lengthy views that cinematographer Zach Kuperstein uses to add to the tense mood of the film. Along with the wailing chorus and screeching strings from Anna Drubich’s soundtrack, the title “Barbarian” resounds throughout the entire work. This symbolic house of mirrors it conjures up is unsettling.
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It’s almost, almost enough to detract from the fact that “Barbarian’s” first two acts lack the sharp wit that would have made them excellent horror scripts. When Cregger makes decisions that are only convenient (to him), the movie suffers. For instance, in a plot where foreboding doors are unnecessary, he may be very pushy in getting characters to open them, peak inside, and look around, abandoning the realistic behavior that keeps us completely hooked in. The devolution can be obvious as “Barbarian” eventually just wants to be as bananas as possible.
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Although his characters’ paths can occasionally seem clear-cut, Cregger does a great job of conveying the unsettling darkness that surrounds them, which is especially apparent when watching a wild film like this in a theater. Your heart rate might concur that “Barbarianlarge “‘s areas of complete darkness are not enjoyable to look at.
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Currently showing in theaters