If you’ve been reading my reviews for any length of time or talked with me, you’ll doubtless be aware that I grew up without seeing much in the way of Horror films. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself drawn into them, and we’ve had plenty in 2022 already. They’re imaginative and inventive in ways that I can’t be. The biggest, and perhaps best, surprise I’ve had this year is writer-director Zach Creeger’s “Barbarian” now in theaters.
For Creeger’s debut, he’s set the film in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood, starting with a case of a doubled-up Airbnb rental. Creeger relies on his camera work to tell the story of Georgina Campbell’s Tess Marshall, who is in town for a job interview.
You can tell that Creeger intends to reveal his story and characters through the atmospherics from the opening frames. This slow burn offers two impactful purposes – first, it obscures the true nature of the house’s surroundings and, second, allows Tess’s character to develop naturally. It enhances her journey and creates an economy of scale for the short 102-minute run time.
There is a third reason, for which you’ll have to see the film in theaters, but within the economy of scale that Creeger achieves, the scares and surprises are worth the journey. Bill Skarsgård, who I didn’t immediately recognize as Keith Toshko, the man who double booked the Airbnb, is superb.
“Barbarian” plays much like the community cards and stages of Texas Hold ’em – the hole cards are dealt, the turn card, in this case, Justin Long’s AJ Gilbride, and finally, the river card determines our hand. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein’s camera places his camera pivotally to focus on characters and catch the action in “Barbarian,” while Joe Murphy’s editing keeps our focus and interest on the characters.
Creeger holds his cards closely, but if you connect them and follow the individual characters, you’ll realize that “Barbarian” is a unique message movie. It is simplistic and complicated at the same time. The story nearly derails when Long’s character is introduced, the one moment in the film that I thought played out too long, but reflecting on how his character is introduced and utilized makes complete sense.
Throughout the film, in dialog and visual composition, Creeger and the actors keep the tension ratcheted up, keeping us on our toes. It is the atmosphere that Creeger builds that you’ll be thinking about days after you’ve left the theater, not only in the camera work or Anna Drubich’s wonderfully haunting score but in the situations presented to the characters.
For a first-time director, Creeger’s confidence shows. Campbell’s primary work in serialized television prepared her well to play Tess. We’ve seen Long in other horror films, namely “Jeepers Creepers.” His approach to this role makes him equally likable and detestable in the same breath. Skarsgård reminded me of Anthony Perkins’ performance in “Psycho” – menacing with intent, but not in a way you think the story turns.
“Barbarian” thrives on its story, building on its moments and using its atmosphere significantly. It truly is one of the great surprises of 2022. It “is perfectly natural.”