The title of writer/director Zach Cregger’s superlative thriller, Barbarian, is – at least at first – a bit of a puzzler, even though its associations and implications cast their shadow over the rest of the film.
‘Barbarian’ derives originally from an onomatopoeic word (βάρβαρος, barbaros) used by the Greeks for their Eastern enemy, in crudely xenophobic imitation of what the Persian tongue, dominated as it was by a-vowels, sounded like to those who had not even bothered to learn or understand it (a bit like racist references to the Chinese as ‘Ching-chongs’). As a vocalisation which, like ‘ma ma’, is one of the first typically produced by babies, that ‘bar bar’ sound (which will be heard later in the film) infantilises Persians, reducing their language to something inarticulate, uncultured, even pre-verbal. Then the term was extended to denote anyone ‘foreign’ or ‘other’, while retaining the racist notion of ‘uncivilised’ or ‘savage’. A ‘barbarian’ is typically primitive, fierce, inferior – and male (although the very existence of the name Barbara demonstrates that barbarians can also be female). It is also a highly judgmental, posturing, contemptuous term that reveals a lot about the attitudes of its user.
Yet when, at the film’s beginning, Tess (Georgina Campbell) comes in the rain late at night to a house in Brightmoor, Detroit that she has rented on AirBnB, only to discover that it is already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgård) who has rented it from another holiday service, both handle this mishap with the utmost civility. When it becomes clear that Tess has nowhere else to stay, we see the scene play out from two very different perspectives: in a gentlemanly gesture, Keith invites Tess to sleep in the bedroom while he takes the couch, offers to share with her the bottle of wine he found waiting in the house, and probably regards their chance encounter as part of a classic meet-cute in a rom-com; for Tess, though, this ‘good guy’ is all red flags and alarm bells, and she is understandably wary of her would-be suitor and potential attacker, before slowly warming to his considerateness, intelligence and charm.
It turns out that Tess and Keith have a lot in common: she is there for a job interview to become researcher on a documentary about marginalised communities, while he is there scouting neglected neighbourhoods for his company to regenerate. And it will turn out, although it was too dark for Tess to notice when she arrived, that this address on Barbary Street (another reference point for the title) is in just such a neglected neighbourhood. What was once a flourishing picket-fence community is now a burnt-out, lightless slum where only the well-maintained house in which they are staying is habitable or indeed inhabited.
In other words, this is a location of decline and degeneration, abandonment and obliteration – a formerly bright suburb that has long since gone dark and gone to hell, with only a single rental home as the last bastion of middle-class aspiration and comfort among what are otherwise just ruins. Keith warns Tess to make her phone calls inside rather than out in her car where it is not safe – and the documentary’s director Catherine (Kate Bosworth) too is alarmed to hear where Tess is staying. Yet perhaps inside is not so safe either. Tess definitely closes the bedroom door before going to sleep, but wakes in the middle of the night to find it open. And when, in search of toilet paper, she ventures down into the basement – that locus of a home’s hidden underpinnings and buried secrets – she discovers a hidden doorway, and a shadowy passageway beyond.
To say more – and to reveal the rôles played by actors Justin Long, Richard Brake and Matthew Patrick Davis in Barbarian – would be to spoil, but suffice it to say that Cregger’s twisted, terrifying tale of deep domestic dysfunction, toxic masculinity and nurturing femininity will certainly pit the civilised against the savage, while showing how easily both can cohabit within. For in this subterranean space, the most unspeakable, arrested horrors of male-female relations are about to reveal themselves – and barbarity will prove to be something that can be learnt both from one’s own immediate family, and from patriarchal society at large.
Barbarian had its UK première at FrightFest 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 28 October.