A big part of the fun of watching Barbarian, one of the buzziest horror movies in the long lead-up to Halloween, comes from discovering all its twists and turns for the first time. But even more fun than that is what comes after watching it: thinking through how thoughtful those twists are, and how they change the kind of movie Barbarian is.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for the entirety of Barbarian follow. For those who don’t want ending spoilers, our spoiler-light review is here. Warning: This article includes discussion of sexual assault and self-harm.]
Barbarian’s first act is coy, using the audience’s limited perspective to imbue everything in its small Airbnb setting with menace. When Tess (Georgina Campbell) decides to ride out a storm with Keith (Bill Skarsgård, best known as Pennywise from the It films) in the small house they unwittingly double-booked on separate websites, Zach Cregger’s script immediately sets up two threats. The first is Keith, a strange man Tess does not know, played by an actor widely known for his role as a horror villain. The other is the house itself, which is nondescript to a point where it’s almost certainly wrong in some way.
In the film’s first 40 minutes, the biggest question is simple but compelling: Will the movie’s horror come from Keith, the house on Barbary Street, or maybe even both? At the end of the first act, the house appears to be the primary threat, as deep in its basement lurks a secret passage hiding a cell with a camera and a filthy cot, and a passage leading deep into a series of tunnels where something lurks. And that something kills Keith, leaving Tess’ fate uncertain.
Then the movie takes a hard pivot to Justin Long loudly singing Donovan’s “Riki Tiki Tavi” while driving a convertible along the coast, in what appears to be a different kind of movie entirely. But this is where Barbarian’s script starts to clearly state what it’s about. Once it does, the film starts to become thoughtfully recursive, coming at the same questions from multiple angles in a way that’s hard not to keep thinking about long after the film ends.
Long plays AJ Gilbride, a Hollywood writer-producer about to have what he believes is the worst day of his life. His pleasant car ride is interrupted by a phone call from his agent, telling him there’s going to be a story in The Hollywood Reporter about his lead actress on a promising series pilot, who is now accusing him of rape. As AJ processes his shock and fury, the fallout comes fast and hard: Their show is canceled, and no one wants to work with him. No more money is coming in, and AJ’s about to be broke. To mount the aggressive legal defense against his accuser that he wants, he’s going to have to liquidate his assets. Which happens to include a certain house in Detroit, on Barbary Street.
As AJ’s connection to the plot is revealed and he makes his way to the house, Barbarian also makes it clear that he’s scum, and he’s almost certainly guilty of assaulting his co-star, even if he’s blind to her experience: He insists he’s just “sexually aggressive” about not taking no for an answer. So as he makes the same discoveries Tess and Keith made before him, the audience’s sympathy is meant to shift. It’s hard not to hope that whatever lurks beneath the house will get this guy. Eventually, it finds him — and so does Tess, who’s still alive. And then there’s one final story pivot, back to the 1980s.
Who is the real monster?
Barbarian’s final key player is Frank, an apparently single man who lived in the Barbary Street house in the 1980s, when its neighborhood was an idyllic, thriving suburb. He’s committed to staying in the house, even as his well-to-do neighbors begin their white flight, as the changing neighborhood puts their white-picket suburban dream at risk.
Frank, however, has other depraved interests: He’s a predator and serial killer, kidnapping unsuspecting women and imprisoning them in a secret labyrinth in his basement, where he forces them to have his children. He’s been doing this for years, raping and inbreeding until the final result is The Mother, the initially monstrous-seeming creature lurking in the modern-day tunnels. By the movie’s third act, she’s revealed as a poor wretch who seeks to bring others to her lair so she can mother them. It’s all she knows to do.
(If you haven’t seen Barbarian but are reading these spoilers to know whether it’s something you’d be comfortable seeing, know that in spite of the horrific subject matter being explored, the film does not actually depict any sexual violence. It’s left off screen, though AJ does find and play one of Frank’s videotapes, and the screams and cries of one of his victims are clearly audible.)
At first, the shock of the house’s history encourages a fairly linear sequence of transgression and consequence, from Frank’s horrific crimes to Tess’ pain. Each terrible sin sinks into the bones of a decaying suburb, keeping the house alive as a locus of suffering, even as its surroundings crumble. But looking at the three men at the center of Barbarian, another reading emerges, as a toxic cycle of male entitlement manifests across a wide spectrum, from subtle to overt.
At the most extreme end is Frank, whose unchecked monstrousness takes on a life of its own, one that by the end, he can no longer control. When AJ discovers him, sickly and decrepit, in a room deep in the tunnels below the house, he’s surrounded by recordings of his evil, and afraid of the consequences of discovery. When AJ threatens to fill the house with police, Frank shoots himself.
By having AJ be the last to confront Frank, Barbarian juxtaposes the two men. AJ’s disgust over Frank’s crimes is clear, but Cregger asks, How far is the distance between them, really? AJ clearly does not respect his accuser. He goes on a bender with a friend where he admits to overriding her protests. He drunkenly calls her after the story breaks in the press, even though his lawyer has told him clearly not to. And he speaks of her almost exclusively as “that fucking bitch.” Yet he still believes he’s a good person, one who hasn’t crossed some imaginary threshold from man to monster.
Keith’s role in this is easiest to overlook, since Barbarian effectively ends with no further revelation about him. He is, as far as we know, exactly who he said he was: just a guy who double-booked an Airbnb. But a conversation between Keith and Tess lays early groundwork for Barbarian’s themes of how male entitlement breeds violence. After Keith persuades her to stay in the Airbnb with him, she asks whether he would have done the same if she’d been the first to arrive, and whether he’d even think of that as risky behavior. Keith, caught off-guard, doesn’t appear to have even considered this.
Keith’s obliviousness is the end of him. When Tess finds the tunnels, she makes her way back upstairs in a panic, telling him they have to leave the house. But he refuses to take her seriously, insisting that he check out what’s wrong before they take any action. Out of concern for him, Tess waits and doesn’t escape the house. He would’ve lived, had he believed her. And she would have been spared a lot of suffering if he wasn’t so pointedly, symbolically dismissive about her personal experience not being proof enough for him.
The horror of status quo
Over and over again, Barbarian coils around this core idea of male entitlement and how its consequences spiral outward. It plays with viewers’ sympathies, as each new sliver of character backstory can cause disdain to shift to pity, only to pivot back again. A less thoughtful film would have AJ, confronted with the extreme endpoint of his transgressions, launching a redemption arc and saving Tess. In Barbarian, the opposite happens: He speaks passionately about his need to fix his mistakes and help the people he’s harmed, but then he immediately sacrifices Tess to have a chance of surviving The Mother. To him, there is nothing connecting him to Frank. He sees himself as a victim of a woman who’s out to get him. Grievance as an ideology is terribly hard to shake once it takes root.
Viewed through this lens, Barbarian becomes a film about how male entitlement and indifference has helped build a world that allows evil to fester and rot. It is present in the desire for a carefully cultivated suburb, which Frank’s neighbor abandons the second he sees it changing. It’s present in the police who answer Tess’ call for help, but prove hostile and dismissive to someone they clearly see as a lower-class woman of color, not worthy of their service or protection. It’s visible in the little slice of the American Dream that compels a man to claim a property as his, a place to let whatever dreams or nightmares he has take root. It grows stronger every time a woman is not taken seriously in order to support a patriarchal status quo.
Tess does ultimately survive AJ’s attack, and so does The Mother, who, it seems, wants to do what she’s always done: bring Tess back to her den to take care of her and nurse her wounds. Barbarian ends abruptly, with Tess getting her hands on a gun and killing The Mother at her most tender, human moment. It doesn’t feel like a victory. It feels like a desperate choice made by a woman with no options left. Tess’ options were chipped away for decades before she even entered the house on Barbary Street, by men who had nothing but their own interests at heart. And they were curtailed even by the men she meets in the present, even the kindliest one. In killing the woman in the story who has suffered most at the hands of these men, Tess doesn’t seem like she’s finally free. She’s just another consequence of the barbarians who built the world around her.