Barbarian (2022) is deeply unsettling and joyfully unpredictable

The horror genre seems to be thriving in 2022. Every other week I’m made aware of yet another film or series that brilliantly explores the genre. Next up on the list is Barbarian. Written and directed by Zach Cregger, it follows a woman who arrives at her Airbnb only to discover not all is as it seems.

I know what you’re thinking – “that synopsis is criminally vague” – and you’d be correct. I went into this film knowing literally nothing about the story, premise, cast or anything… and I implore anyone wanting to see this to go in with as little knowledge as possible. Even if that means exiting this review right now, do it. This happened to be one of the most joyfully unpredictable horror stories of the year. At its core, it’s a narrative not unlike other horror films we’ve seen recently, but it’s the way it’s broken up and presented that makes it feel like a fresh experience. It’s constantly subverting expectations with its unconventional approach to storytelling, and it’s quite genius. Despite being a risky move, the approach pays off. Not only does it add layers to the film in terms of its core themes, it allows the story to delve deep into certain characters without jumping around between multiple arcs concurrently.

Harnessing the terrifying power of claustrophobic horror, Barbarian wastes no time creating a tense, creepy and unsettling atmosphere. It’s all filmed in a very close-quarters environment to where the characters feel uncomfortably crammed-in, like at all times there’s just nowhere to run. Zach Cregger and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein have exhibited a masterclass in inducing terror even when there’s nothing objectively ‘scary’ on screen. Moments of character dialogue are paired with very tight shots that put the actors in your face and give off that tightly enclosed feeling. The biggest factor in what makes the horror in here so effective is the phenomenal use of lighting. Not many recent horror films have used lighting quite as creatively as Barbarian. Every shot is deliberately and perfectly lit to enhance the eerie atmosphere and trick you into thinking you see something in the hazy darkness, but you really don’t… or do you? Not since Lights Out (2016) can I think of a notably impressive use of lighting in a horror film.

Now when talking about performances, I’m also going to be a little more vague than usual… so there’s your heads up. These aren’t horror performances that will rival what Mia Goth accomplishes in X (2022) and Pearl (2022), but they’re strong and believable nonetheless. Georgina Campbell is undoubtedly the standout. I’ve not seen her in anything prior to this, but her performance makes me want to check out some of her other projects. Georgina plays the role in a way that straddles this line between brave and terrified, and does a great job at making her feel real and relatable. Then there’s Bill Skarsgård who is brilliant as ever, and that’s all I’ll say about that. Finally Justin Long has a presence and he’s great too. It’s a strong lineup of actors who don’t put a foot wrong.

If I had one minor gripe, it would be that the climax could have been a little cleaner. It did feel slightly random during the final 5-10 minutes, taking me out of it a little. It could be frantic by design, but something still felt ever-so-slightly off.

In the end, Barbarian announces its presence with a narrative structure that’s creative, unpredictable and sets the film apart from the rest of the crowd. The use of lighting and tight framing to enhance the tension and create a claustrophobic atmosphere is a great touch. It’s dark, it’s gritty, it’s intense and it’s yet another gift for horror fans in 2022. What a time to be alive.

8.6/10

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