This article contains Barbarian spoilers.
Do not go down there. Just turn around and leave. This is a thought audiences have shared—and even screamed—in movie houses for as long as there have been horror pictures. Why did this ostensibly smart character make that dumb choice? Why did they not say, “nope!”
This is a question Zach Cregger’s Barbarian addresses head-on by having its heroine Tess (Georgina Campbell) time and again recognize what is the smart thing to do and what is the dangerous/foolish choice. And every time, Tess tests our sanity, and perhaps her own, by picking the latter.
By design, Barbarian is asking you why, and whether you would do the same. Perhaps, more importantly, it is also questioning whether you should.
When we meet Tess, she is a portrait of wary self-awareness. Upon discovering in the middle of the night that another person, a friendly and affable white guy named Keith (Bill Skarsgård), has booked the same AirBnB she has on the sketchy side of Detroit, she demands to see his email confirmation to prove he also is renting this house. And when he invites her in to stay the night once she realizes how screwed she is… she hesitates before crossing the threshold. Only when she’s entered the house do we see the movie’s title card “Barbarian.”
From the first, Cregger’s twisty screenplay is asking us to evaluate what was demonstrably a bad decision by a smart character to enter that abode. Barbarian is also an exercise in providing the audience with more information at any moment than the characters ever hold. Tess doesn’t know she’s in a horror movie, anymore than she knows that the man who invited her into the house once played a killer clown who lived in sewers. Yet she knows enough to keep her distance. When Keith first makes her tea, she refuses to drink it because she didn’t see what he put in the kettle; later when he offers to open a bottle of wine in front of her, she still declines to drink with him or lower her guard.
Eventually, she begins to see he might just be a decent if typically oblivious dude who goes through life without a care in the world, but she never mistakes the reality of the situation. He sees their encounter as perhaps the beginning of a rom-com, and honestly this same setup could have gone that way. But when Cregger’s camera lingers uneasily around the house’s corners, we’re clued in to the fact that Tess is aware this could turn into the stuff of horror at any moment.
And yet, when things go off-kilter at the end of the movie’s first act, Tess makes the choice that leaves viewers howling in anxious bewilderment: She sees what is quite clearly a room where someone was kept prisoner and suffered—a dungeon, in essence—hidden behind a wall in the basement… and she doesn’t immediately leave. She wants to. But Keith? Enjoying the freedom and carelessness his privilege affords him, the dude simply can’t imagine that this terrified woman saw something so sinister in a well-lit AirBnB. Surely, she must be hysterical.
So he goes down into the dark, and Tess agrees to wait for him. Worse still, when she hears his cries of anguish, pleading with her to come help him… she ignores every survival instinct she demonstrated during the first night in the house and follows his screams into the dark.
At a glance, one could entertain whether it is just a continuation of her and Keith’s earlier scenes of attempting to maintain a facade of normalcy and niceties despite their unusual situation. She found a strange man staying in the house she needed to escape a storm; she is a strange woman who knocked on his door and implicitly suggested he is a liar and perhaps a predator. Neither of them say those quiet parts out loud, however, and even end the evening on something approaching amusement if not entirely affection.
However, it is more than just politeness that drags Tess into the abyss; it’s her strong moral fiber of doing the right thing. She is the true Good Samaritan of antiquity; the person who actually wants to help. Did Keith really care about Tess’ safety when he offered to let her stay the night given the storm outside and the menace of the surrounding neighborhood, or was he just doing what would be considered chivalrous by society? It’s ambiguous since he, in the end, is a “nice guy,” but the kind who is instantly skeptical when a woman tries to tell him something is wrong.
Tess knows something is wrong, but goes down into the dark anyway. She again isn’t keenly aware she’s in a horror movie, but she understands the day-to-day horrors of being a young woman trying to navigate this world. And unfortunately, given the genre conventions she’s in, she pays a heavy price when she finds an inbred-mutant monster (Matthew Patrick Davis) who immediately slaughters Keith and takes her hostage. Bitter lesson learned, right?
As the movie progresses into the first of several wickedly jarring switchbacks, Barbarian then jumps forward several weeks and introduces us to an entirely new protagonist: AJ (Justin Long). With a sunny disposition and a shit-eating grin on his face, AJ is as likable as a sitcom personality, which turns out to be fitting because he is a sitcom actor. Or at least he was until, as his first scene reveals, he’s been accused of raping a co-star and now faces criminal charges, plus becoming an instant Hollywood pariah.
The structure of Barbarian is painfully clever, because we never know the details of the accusation leveled against AJ, only his few feeble excuses. And while watching him, it is at the least possible to suspect he is so conceited and selfish that he didn’t even realize what he did was sexual assault. Nonetheless, we have all we need to know to condemn the narcissist as he insists to his friends that it “became” consensual, or that the woman who accused him is “a bitch.”
So when AJ turns into the next fool to cavalierly walk into that grim AirBnB’s basement, we know something that Tess won’t when she meets him at the bottom of a pit: He is that blithe caricature she described to Keith at the beginning of the movie: “Guys blast their way through life making messes.”
The cage AJ and Tess find themselves in? It’s the mess; the one AJ made for himself by literally marching on into what was clearly a dungeon with blood smeared on the walls.
Tess doesn’t know that though—only that AJ is dumb enough to antagonize “the Mother.” But at least that creates a situation where she can escape. At last she’s free and safe. And under the auspices of being the Good Samaritan, she even does what we’re taught since childhood. She finds the nearest phone (miles away) and calls the cops.
However, the world is never as black and white as we’re raised to believe, and the police only see a Black woman in ragged, likely smelly clothes and assume she’s a junkie. And rather than save AJ, they leave her in front of her car by that same damned house and drive off. Once again, Tess is left with a choice: Get the hell out of here or go back into the dark to save a guy she doesn’t know. And this time she understands what else is down there…
Still, down she goes once more into the abyss, all to rescue a man who only the audience recognizes as a rapist.
Thus at last does Barbarian reach its real moral quandary. Should you do “the right thing” in a world as broken as ours—where police are as likely to write you off because of the color of your skin and the state of your clothes, and where rapists can be so entitled that they don’t even realize they’re not a “good guy”? And do we think Tess would’ve done that if she knew AJ like we do?
The last question is unanswerable, but I lean toward yes. Unlike a “dumb character” in typical ‘80s slasher movies, Tess doesn’t make the bad choice, oblivious to the disastrous consequences. By the end of Barbarian, she knows exactly how sideways things can go but she still does the right thing.
For all of its twists and dark humor, Barbarian seems to, in its heart of hearts, want audiences to do better. Being able to clearly see what the right thing is, as opposed to speak in general niceties like Keith, is what keeps you grounded and perhaps would prevent monsters like “The Mother” from ever existing. If the neighbors of that creature’s father had recognized the telltale signs of having a predator in their midst, perhaps he wouldn’t have been able to abduct women and raise their offspring as his sex slaves for decades.