Dinner conversations that circle around to Brendan Fraser’s Encino Man are generally considered good evenings, at least in my book. For the dinner guests of Barbarians, that is by far the highlight of the evening, even if they don’t realize it right away. The film, which veritably drips with anxiety, suffocates the viewer until the three-quarters mark when everything changes and the film gets really wild.
Group dynamics, particularly at dinner parties, rarely go well in horror movies. Coherence was a trippy alternate timeline nightmare that eventually resulted in creepy death scenes and too many colored glow sticks. Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is a nasty bit of storytelling that centers on a cult and the last party you would ever want to attend. While Barbarians doesn’t have the same punch of The Invitation or the sci-fi insanity of Coherence, it does have one unpleasant meal and a monumental third act shift.
The group has gotten together to celebrate Adam’s birthday. Additionally, the house they live in is Lucas’ model home of his new development, and Adam’s wife Eve has been commissioned to sculpt a signature piece. The couple will be living there while the sculpture is under construction. Although Lucas lords it over the shorter man, Adam has success of his own. The two men circle each other like caged animals. They vacillate from wary and pacing to brutally savage with nothing off-limits.
At nearly an hour in, the tense drama makes way for something unexpected and weird. I mean, really, really weird. There are subplots and miscues and a large amount of blood before it is all over. Barbarians is a hard movie to define without giving away spoilers. About the only thing I can say is this slow burner rewards those who are patient. The tiny ensemble cast is all very good, each playing their part. Broken into chapters, the film may feel a little plodding in the first couple of acts due to the uncomfortableness of the company, but that relentless dread is necessary to set up the last act jolt.
Early on, you get the impression that Lucas is a user. He is the worst kind of a pompous ass. He primps and preens his way through contrived social media posts intended to hide the fact that he is a terrible person who took the land for his development from a family who has lived there for generations. The stress of the subsequent lawsuit was too much for the patriarch of the family, who died of a heart attack. The stone from which the development got its name is treated as a supernatural touchstone of humanity, right before Lucas has it moved to his model home.
These people do not like each other despite what they pretend. Most of them are pretty awful. So it is almost a relief when the action picks up, and the group is forced to band together. There is only so much taunting and posturing one can watch before we want to jump through the screen and punch the guy ourselves.
The tension between this group crackles and fizzes with secrets and animosity. If the brothers weren’t family, they would most definitely not be friends. The self-declared alpha dog Lucas, a scene-stealing Tom Cullen, is truly awful to his friend and everyone around him. He is the most narcissistic, selfish, over-masculine brute of a man I couldn’t imagine anyone willingly spending time with him. More often than not, the source of his abuse is Adam, Game of Thrones Iwan Rheon. Playing way off type, Rheon is a long-suffering soy boy beta cuck who defers to just about everyone else in his life before listening to himself.
The women fare better than the men as they are both assertive and confident, even if their choices don’t always reflect that. Lucas’ girlfriend Chloe(Inès Spiridonov) and Eve(Catalina Sandino Moreno) are more subtle than their male counterparts but just as realistic.
Sound design is effective, blanketing everything in intense, looming disaster. Before the party even starts everything you are drawn tight with concern. What you think will descend into a Battle Royale between friends turns into something even more interesting set up in quick first act sound bites.
Cinematically the Barbarians is beautiful, mixing a range of shots, including aerial footage to bring the beauty of the countryside and modern ascetic of the decorating in sharp juxtaposition with the spectacle of the violence, both verbal and physical. First time director Charles Dorfman who also wrote Barbarians, shows a deft hand capturing the intimacy of this group and the majesty of the setting. Having produced some of the most fun horror movies of the last couple of years(VFW, Rabid, and The Boys From County Hell are personal favorites), it is no surprise, Dorfman was able to step out from producing and into the creator role so easily.
There are some strange missteps with plotting that felt more exploitive than necessary. Namely, the addition of a dying fox that shows up a few too many times and eventually is put out of its misery. Symbolically, the fox is a tad heavy-handed, and the point could have been driven home without it. The message might have been more impactful if we didn’t spend a good portion of the movie waiting for yet another fox to appear. An ominous art studio tour is equally confusing but does allow the two female party guests to foreshadow their later commitment to action.
This is a slow burn of psychological madness. Friends who aren’t friendly and enemies who aren’t what they seem co-mingle in the impeccably decorated model house. While the pacing could have been a little tighter, the absolute abandon in which Cullen and Rheon throw themselves into their roles saves things from becoming too stuck in the narrative muck. Barbarians is the extremes of masculinity unchecked. It premiered at Fantastic Fest 2021. Find all our coverage here.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.