Thursday 3 November 2022

When the shit goes down: "Barbarian"

This was perhaps inevitable. 2014's Unfriended claimed the title of the first Facebook horror; 2020's Host reigned supreme as the first Zoom horror. Continuing the trend of a chiller for every app, Barbarian lands among us as the first Airbnb horror. Pulling up outside the sole rentable property in one of Detroit's more rundown suburbs, fresh-faced Tess (Georgina Campbell) soon finds herself having to work through a list of everything that can go wrong when your leisure options have been laid on by a laxly regulated free market: no keys in the dropbox, no-one at property management to take your call, the discovery of a double-booking, made more frightful yet here upon the discovery the dude occupying Tess's rented room is the Skarsgård brother last seen playing the clown in the It remake. You can see the prosaic movie that might develop out of this set-up: tension in the communal areas, leading to a chase around the kitchen, hiding in the crawlspace; clues in the guestbook; everyday household items redeployed as torture implements and/or tools of resistance. Instead, writer-director Zach Cregger has constructed something trickier and more surprising, a film that - like its central property - has hidden depths and unexpected backchannels. This really is one of those instances where it would be best to avoid reading too much in advance, the better to be redirected and misdirected in turn; Cregger will take you on quite the journey around the houses, and out towards the wilderness on the outskirts of civilisation. If that's what you're looking for of a Friday or Saturday night, I'll gladly wave you off here, safe in the knowledge I'm putting you in pretty good hands.

For anyone in need of a harder sell, permit me to add the following observations. The movie rests on three pillars of strength, foremost among them Cregger's screenplay, which dares to go in those new directions, even as it risks disconcerting the audience. Rossitsa Bakeva's modest feat of production design - with typical studio perversity, this wholly US-funded production elected to recreate a square mile of Detroit in Bulgaria - allows that script to keep opening the doors that it does. In passing, we're offered a panorama of a neighbourhood in varied states of disrepair, but in an uncommonly architectural horror movie, one that kept reminding me of Mike Nelson's immersive installation art, it's the interiors that really stay with you: precisely evoked rooms - borderline psychic spaces - inhabited at different times by folks with very different (not always the best) reasons for being there. Thirdly, there is Cregger's canny deployment of actors. That we remain in situ is in large part down to Justin Long as the movie's own super-sub: an innately sympathetic performer brought on at half-time to play a less than admirable character. An unlikely white knight for any film to call upon when the shit goes down - as down it goes here - Long's AJ is a brisk sketch of male indifference and recklessness. (You wince just at the way he treats someone else's laptop.) I think the smarts run a little thin towards the end, and the directorial control begins to waver. The revelation of its "monster" owes something to The League of Gentlemen and Little Britain (which is where it gets retrograde and sniggery) and something to Parasite (which is where it gets derivative); Cregger's talents lie in restructuring rather than renovation, and the #MeToo business that feels integral to this weekend's Watcher feels performative, even insincere here. (It is recognisably, at the last, a movie directed by a Zach.) Still, you can have a discussion about that in the lobby after Barbarian has messed with you every which way.

Barbarian is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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