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‘Barbarian’ and its missing depths

Editor’s note: This review includes mentions of sexual assault.

“Barbarian” is a genre-twisting horror film preying on the fears of dark basements, “nice guy” strangers and rust-belt neighborhoods. What seems like a simple, entertaining premise quickly transforms into a lurking exploration of a horror found in real life. Unfortunately, its thematic mystery falls apart under its own hypocrisy.

I first need to give credit to writer-director Zach Cregger for the adrenaline rush that is his first horror feature. The constant character reveals and genre-switching works every time in escalating the real tension of the story. The visuals are the impressive highlight, emphasizing how clever each character is — or the lack thereof — in silently creative ways. Some choices the characters make pull genuine laughs out of the audience, while others are jaw-dropping in shock value. This emphasis on surprise is the film’s strongest feature. It does not last the entire runtime, but it keeps you guessing on the edge of your seat.

The story branches itself into three characters that play off different genres to clash against the scares. What starts as a stranger-danger thriller suddenly cuts to a horror-comedy with delicious parallels, before once again cutting to a period horror with 80s-era serial killer stereotypes. Yes, the stereotypes are rampant throughout, but they are oftentimes used to double down on each genre in intriguing ways. Sadly, this switching of genre-play only happens in the first half of the film and disappears before reaching its full potential. Once the story merges into one lane, it leaves a collection of questions to be discarded and the remaining conflict to fizzle out in the end.

Now to where this film truly fails: what the characters stand for. One is a blank victim that exists only to be the “final girl” and the other is a predator that never realizes that his excuses are fantasies. The former is supposed to be the central character, but the camera and theme only seem to care about the latter. This is because “Barbarian” secretly revolves around men in denial for being the monsters we read about in accusations. It’s an intriguing premise that is clouded in execution. The worst part is that this underlying reality of sexual assault gets painted over when the predatory man serves as the comedic relief while the female victim gets no characterization at all.

The hardest scenes to watch are intentional. Much of the male character’s past is hard to watch in his self-excusing negligence and false promises, while his actions show his true nature. The female character, on the other hand, doesn’t have a past. She has no inner conflict, flaw or even a purpose to be involved. She’s just stuck there. The comparisons to Alex Garland’s “Men” (criticized for a male writer’s use of a blank female character for a two-dimensional-anti-male, feminist horror film) are so laughable that it sinks this film into ruin.

“Barbarian” is a fun watch in the beginning that accidentally drops all promises by the halfway point. What is left is its broken theme that wants to speak truths too little too late in the runtime with no explanation as to why. It is too busy prioritizing the schock value of genre clash and horror set pieces to effectively present its actual purpose. There’s not enough time with the isolated characters to flesh out their struggles, and the actual, sub-textual horror behind the scares is left off screen. The film’s cracks in the foundation are invisible yet deep, causing the whole story to crumble under the quickest scrutiny. In the end, the risk of tackling guilty men’s response to sexual assault was too catastrophic in the name drops alone; it needed time to grow and be part of the film’s message, but it had no energy or depth to explore correctly.

‘Barbarian’

Director: Zach Cregger

Starring: Georgina Campbell, Justin Long, Bill Skarsgard

Shamrocks: 2 out of 5

Contact JP Spoonmore at jpspoonmo@nd.edu