Modern life is rubbish, as Blur emphatically stated all those years ago, and it doesn’t matter how much money you have or how nice your house is – there will always be things we can’t control. Barbarians, the impressive debut feature from prolific producer Charles Dorfman (The Lost Daughter), places two well-off couples at the mercy of home invaders. However, before we get to that moment, which in a normal horror movie would be the crux of the story, there’s plenty of interpersonal drama to contend with, much of which centers on a stunning country home that may or may not have been stolen from a local farmer’s family. As strange as it might sound, the home invasion is the least interesting element of this dark, stylish, ruthlessly claustrophobic little thriller, which is why it makes sense Dorfman saves it until the end.
Game of Thrones’ resident baddie Iwan Rheon is meek fledgling filmmaker Adam who, along with his partner Eva (a luminous Catalina Sandino Moreno), is settling into an expansive modern home that’s been gifted to them by influencer frenemy Lucas (Tom Cullen). However, despite how stunning the property is, and how lovely the surrounding area, it’s clear Adam doesn’t feel completely comfortable there. He goes for a run and encounters a bloody fox, which later shows up in the couple’s kitchen, leading a local man to emasculate Adam as he disposes of it, impressing Eva, with whom he’s been openly flirting. Aside from being called Adam and Eva (wink wink), the fox clearly represents the encroaching darkness in the area. There’s an unavoidable sense of foreboding, even in the harsh light of day.
It doesn’t help that Eva’s artwork is decidedly dark, borderline frightening, while Adam is harboring a devastating secret that comes to the fore midway through an increasingly uncomfortable dinner party, during which Lucas also breaks the news that the house might not actually be theirs after all. The foursome’s conversations are incredibly accurate, covering topics such as marriage, the economy, and politics. They’re all very contentious and snappily cut together, creating a sense of impending doom that has nothing to do with the masked men who eventually show up to trash the place at precisely the wrong moment (one of whom is having an absolute blast tearing the place asunder). In fact, there’s a funny moment when Lucas and Adam don’t even realize the intruders are standing there because they’re too busy wrestling on the floor, further emphasizing their tone-deafness.
Again, the interpersonal relationships are compelling enough without the home invasion element, but by having these men intrude upon their classy dinner party, Dorfman makes an incisive point about how privileged types rarely acknowledge the harm they’re causing elsewhere, until they’re quite literally hit across the face with it. Barbarians begins with a bloodied shot of Lucas, and the film takes its time looping back around to reveal what happened to him. The fact it’s nothing like what you think it’s going to be speaks to how ruthlessly involving the story is. Dorfman doesn’t even need to do anything particularly scary to make us feel utterly ill at ease. He’s helped immeasurably by Marc Canham’s propulsive, beat-driven score, which keeps us on our toes throughout. Put simply, this is not the kind of party you want to attend, even though it might look fun from the outside.
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The problem with oversharing online, Barbarians posits, is that by giving away your location, you leave yourself vulnerable to being stalked or, worse, attacked. Lucas’s hubris goes further than simply being too online, but he suffers worse because of his inability to take a step back and consider other people’s feelings, which is what plays into Lucas’s ongoing conflict with Adam too. Cullen bears a passing resemblance to Emmett Scanlan, only without the broiling intensity, but he’s perfectly cast here, emerging as a wannabe alpha-male whose desire to succeed overrides any kind of moral clarity. Rheon, meanwhile, a weirder, weedier Daniel Radcliffe type, plays brilliantly off him, the actor’s wide eyes betraying an inner turmoil that bleeds into every aspect of his life, from Adam’s career woes to his troubled relationship with Eva. Tellingly, he finds it impossible to voice any of his concerns until it all comes spilling out at once, in a moment of unbridled selfishness.
Character-driven plots are tough to pull off without fully committed performances, but all four leads here are terrific, in the quiet moments and the loud. It’s difficult to choose one actor who stands out above the rest, but Rheon really sells Adam as the kind of guy who’s dismissed by brutes like Lucas only to find out too late that they’re more alike than he realizes. The fact the dinner party is also his birthday celebration makes Adam a far more pathetic character overall, but Rheon’s inherent gloominess ensures he’s never straightforwardly empathetic either. Hopefully, the actor gets more leading roles in future, to further show off what he can do. The location, meanwhile, is incredibly photogenic, which is handy considering most of the action takes place there. Every moment throbs with suspense, the slowly escalating tension progressively tougher to decipher because it’s unclear who the real villains are. The title, Barbarians, seems deliberate too since nobody behaves like a rational human being.
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It’s not all smooth sailing. The chapter breaks aren’t strictly necessary, and do nothing to add to the atmosphere, which is thick with intrigue already. If anything, they take away from it. Likewise, the ending is slightly too neat, even though it’s arguably the only way the story could reasonably culminate. These are minor quibbles, however, since Barbarians is, for the most part, a slick, beautifully shot, and deviously unpredictable story of privileged, out of touch jerks learning the error of their ways in the most horrifying manner possible – and that’s even before any bloodshed occurs.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Charles Dorfman
Writer(s): Charles Dorfman, Statten Roeg
Stars: Iwan Rheon, Tom Cullen, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Inès Spiridonov
Release date: April 1, 2022 (select theaters, VOD, Digital)
Run Time: 89 minutes