Review: Zach Cregger's Unique Storytelling Sharpens 'Barbarian'
by Manuel São Bento
October 31, 2022
The horror genre has been a tad inconsistent this year, not everything has ended up that good. The chances of leaving the theater either disappointed or quite satisfied are very similar, but curiously, the most praised horror films of 2022 are the ones that have most often negatively surprised me. This "curse" has been fading slightly over time, but it has been difficult to enter the theater with high expectations and end up having those expectations met. Barbarian is another movie in the genre that has been incredibly complimented by the vast majority of viewers so far… This time, I'm happy to say that it deserves all of the hype received.
Personally, first-time directors and/or screenwriters always capture my interest. Zach Cregger is the one responsible for making Barbarian, a film that easily justifies the use of the famous saying, "you shouldn't judge a book by its cover". It's hard to even figure out what exactly the film is about until you watch it. With a deceptively generic premise – characters discover a creepy secret basement in an oddly located Airbnb home – Cregger cleverly "plays" with the anticipation of audiences, especially those more used to the horror genre already. The filmmaker constructs scenes that, in many other horror flicks would follow a particularly predictable path, precluding any possibility for surprise and removing impact from potential jumpscares.
In Barbarian, whenever such formulaic developments are nearing their next big moment, Cregger pulls the rug out from under the audience through sharp transitions that will leave any cinephile completely baffled. Abrupt tonal changes are a massively risky move, as these can "scare off" viewers who are more relaxed and less interested in paying total attention to a movie from which they only expected the usual scares or yet another variation on a dated narrative idea, i.e., a good portion of the usual audience.
Due to these spontaneous moments, Barbarian manages to transform a screenplay that might end up being too simple in other hands and tell a story full of twists that are tough to predict, resulting in an incredibly intriguing atmosphere throughout most of the runtime. Long sequences in the seemingly endless labyrinth hidden within establish efficient levels of suspense and tension, but Cregger's most remarkable success lies in the way he's able to convey his messages through the fantastic subversion of expectations.
From characters that emanate distrust from the moment they appear, to supposed "creatures" that anyone instinctively will fear, Barbarian explores the very definition of what we interpret as "good": whether it's a "good person", a "good deed", even "good intentions". Is there any subjectivity? Or is it inherently factual, and observable? Is it possible for someone to be a "good person who has done a bad deed", no matter how reprehensible that may be? Cregger handles this theme so cunningly that, in the end, whoever we expected to repress and push away ends up as the one we best understand and support - and the opposite happens.
The first tonal shock is welcome, converting a first act that was losing its momentum with every passing minute into a film that never drops its entertainment levels again. The second time it happens doesn't have the same impact and raises too many unanswered questions, but it helps maintain the fascinating pacing for the rest of the movie. Both Bill Skarsgård and Justin Long's performances as two completely different characters - again, the topic of "appearances can be deceiving" is the focus - deserve praise, but Georgina Campbell is phenomenal at playing the brave, smart protagonist who has no idea what she's in for.
Technically, Zach Kuperstein's cinematography and Rossitsa Bakeva's production design for the film are also excellent, but Barbarian is a rare horror film in the sense that it's the original narrative itself that makes the movie stand out from the rest of the genre's latest offerings. Obviously as horror, it contains scary, visually disturbing moments, but nothing that impresses as much as Cregger's story, told through a distinctive, bold style. For this alone, it should be enjoyed by every movie lover.
Barbarian deserves all the hype its received so far! Zach Cregger's unique storytelling in the horror film will leave any viewer baffled, transforming a generic premise into a truly captivating, suspenseful, thematically rich story where the definition of a "good person" is brilliantly explored. It plays around with the audience's anticipation, especially with fans of the genre already used to the unfolding of formulaic arcs, through exciting twists and sudden tonal changes. Georgina Campbell stands out from the rest, but all the players are important in embodying the idea that "appearances can be deceiving". Mandatory viewing - go in blind.