This article contains major Barbarian spoilers.
Before it goes off in directions that no one could have anticipated, Barbarian asks a simple and relatable question: When is it okay to be impolite? That question is posed in the movie’s opening scene, which finds Tess (Georgiana Campbell) arriving late at night at the Detroit house she’s rented via AirBnB, only to learn that it’s already been booked by a man called Keith (Bill Skarsgård). Tess, standing in the rain in a clearly rundown neighborhood, makes her agitation plain as she demands answers from the man in what was to be her space. Keith allows his irritation to slip as well, as he deals with the frustrated woman accosting him in the middle of the night.
They both have reasons to be rude. After a few tense minutes, politeness prevails, and the two treat each other kindly. Keith invites Tess inside and, possibly against her better judgment, Tess agrees.
In deciding to share the rental with a man she’s never met, Tess joins a long line of horror movie protagonists who make bad choices. But as The Cabin in the Woods famously pointed out, there would often be no movie if the characters did the smart thing. If Victor Frankenstein just stayed out of God’s domain, if hospital administration just kept Michael Myers where he was, if those stupid kids just accepted that Camp Blood has a death curse, then everyone would still be alive, but we wouldn’t get to watch them die in interesting ways.
Barbarian iterates on that theme by presenting viewers with questions that most women must ask several times a day: Should I be polite to this guy? What will happen to me if I am polite or impolite?
Nice Guys and Bad Men
As Tess and Keith get to know one another and drop their guard a bit, he asks her, “Do I look like some kind of monster?” To us viewers, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” After all, Skarsgård is best known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in It and It: Chapter Two. Furthermore, director Zach Cregger invites discomfort, beginning the movie with a long shot on the exterior of the house, a lone porchlight illuminating the driving rain while voices moan on the soundtrack. Even as Keith struggles to make Tess feel safe, making a point of pouring a drink in front of her and showing her the door locks, music stings and panning shots around corners present him as scary.
Barbarian takes the opposite approach with the movie’s other male lead, actor AJ, portrayed by Justin Long. Cregger plays on the persona Long has cultivated in movies such as Galaxy Quest and Dodgeball, and in tv shows such as New Girl: that of a nice guy who presents no danger to anyone. Even in his horror movies he’s the good guy (Drag Me to Hell), or at least a hapless victim (Tusk).
Introduced with an extended shot of him joyously singing a pop song while driving along the California coast, AJ seems utterly charming at first glance, even as the sing-along gets interrupted by a phone call informing the actor that he’s been accused of sexual assault. Banking on Long’s considerable charm, the movie lets viewers consider taking AJ’s side for quite some time, giving us only his version of events on the night of the assault. Even when he acts stupidly, leaving California for Michigan while under investigation, AJ seems more like an idiot than a predator. The kind who discovers a torture dungeon in his house and thinks “more square footage!”
But by the film’s end, each man’s true colors have been revealed. Keith is in fact a good guy, genuine in his desire to make Tess comfortable, who never takes advantage of their situation. AJ is in fact a selfish abuser, completely incapable of showing empathy. For Tess though, does it ultimately matter?
The Evil Inside
Rather than a shocking twist, these reversals underscore one of Barbarian‘s primary themes: How do you tell the good guys from the bad? Apropos of its central image, that of a respectable suburban house hiding winding tunnels filled with horrific secrets, Barbarian reminds viewers that we have no real way of knowing if other people plan to harm or help us. In a telling flashback sequence to the early 1980s, Richard Brake plays the house’s original owner, who is welcomed by everyone he meets, even as he captures women and drags them into his basement.
To be sure, that basic theme makes for an exciting horror movie, but it becomes a truly disturbing scenario. The pleasure of watching Barbarian comes in part from following each turn and reveal, learning that what seemed to be a simple thriller based on a lodging mistake is in fact a full-on creature feature, complete with a grotesque killer called the Mother (portrayed by Matthew Patrick Davis). And even that story gives way to an even darker one, which calls for sympathy for the Mother by locating the real horror in Brake’s homeowner, who grew the Mother through generations of rape and inbreeding.
But not everyone can write off Barbarian as escapist fun. Its excesses aren’t forays into fantasy, but metaphors for real, everyday choices and cruelties. Even though they don’t have to navigate subterranean tunnels or battle monstrous cavern-dwellers, women regularly must decide which men to trust and which to avoid. Moreover, they have to figure out how to show trust or make avoidance in a manner that will not put them at additional risk. And as Barbarian illustrates, there’s no foolproof way to tell the good guys from the bad.
A Lot of Bad Dudes in Here
Keith’s question about looking like a monster comes in the middle of a conversation about the different struggles faced by men and women. Using their current situation as an example, Tess points out that there’s no way she would have done what Keith did if the situation were reversed. And even if she would have invited Keith in, he would have “just marched on in,” not afraid of making herself vulnerable.
Tess’s analogy reframes the question of politeness. For Keith, the central question was a matter of manners. Does he have the right to turn away this woman who bangs on the door in the middle of the night? Is it okay to send her back out on a rainy night in an unfamiliar and sketchy neighborhood? But for Tess, the question is existential: Will I be hurt if I go? Will I be hurt if I stay?
“I get it,” Keith concludes. “There’s a lot of bad dudes out there.” But for all of his performative kindness, Keith shows that he truly doesn’t understand Tess’s predicament. He blithely enjoys his male privilege in a way that’s not dissimilar to AJ, even if he’s not a bad dude.
We see this in the unsolicited advice he offers about Tess’s relationship woes and in the phrase he uses when Tess rejects his offers (“It’s not up for discussion”). But nowhere is more apparent when Tess tells him about the creepy hidden room she finds. Instead of coming with her to get help, or at the very least letting her leave, Keith blocks her path. “Can you give me a moment, please,” he pleads. “Can you just wait here, in case I get locked inside too?” he asks her, using the cover of politeness to get his way, against her wishes.
Of course, Tess does the polite thing and stays while Keith goes to investigate. And of course, the decision has a horrible outcome, leading to Keith’s brutal death and a truly traumatizing experience for Tess. Such is the way of horror movies. But Barbarian is most terrifying when showing us that even the good dudes hurt women, precisely because they remain ignorant of the evil lurking in the depths below.