IFC Midnight’s latest thriller, Barbarians, is the debut for writer and director Charles Dorfman. The film follows two couples getting together for a birthday dinner celebration. What begins as a relatively normal, intimate dinner between old friends and new friends quickly unravels as tensions rise and secrets are revealed. As if that isn’t bad enough, the night is thrown into utter chaos as the doorbell rings, announcing the arrival of unexpected guests. Taking place almost entirely inside one house over the course of 24 hours, Barbarians wastes no time in building the suspense and throwing plenty of curveballs at the audience. The result is a dark, violent, shocking, and sometimes even funny thrill ride from start to finish.
Barbarians tells a story in the same vein as films like The Strangers and The Rental. Each film focuses on a small group of people who are already under a lot of stress as their relationships are crumbling in some way, but then an intruder (or intruders) throws the people into chaos and forces them to put their grievances aside, at least for a little while. It is a common theme with home-invasion thrillers that lean more towards horror. While Barbarians does all of this, it also throws in a bit of commentary on influencer culture, the lives of the privileged, and how the savvy are able to swindle those in need.
What truly makes Barbarians stand out from other similar films is that it includes some subtle elements of folk horror as well. Not only is there some folk horror imagery, such as frightening animal masks, but there are many references to a monolithic stone. The only downside to the Pagan aspects of Barbarians is that they aren’t fully developed. Having masks, a monolith, and even hints at something supernatural definitely help to make a film memorable, but when they don’t have any real relevance to the plot, it potentially leaves the audience feeling like there is something missing from the film.
The four main actors in Barbarians are a delight to watch, whether it’s because you’re rooting for them to survive or rooting for them to die. Iwan Rheon (Game of Thrones, Inhumans) stars as the birthday boy, Adam. Adam is the kind of character who will likely divide audiences as some will sympathize with him and others will think he’s terrible, which is exactly why he’s great. Rheon is a fantastic actor and he really excels in this role, especially in how expressive he is with his face and how he can say a lot without speaking a word. Catalina Sandino Moreno (The Affair, At the Devil’s Door) plays Adam’s girlfriend, Eva. In a film filled with characters tightrope-walking along the line between good and evil, Eva is the only character who can truly be seen as good and innocent in all this. Moreno is perfect in the role as she makes Eva both endearing and independent. Playing Adam’s friend Lucas is Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey, Black Mirror). Lucas is the kind of character horror fans love to hate. Not only does Cullen play the part quite well, but he and Rheon play together in a way that makes the tension palpable. Then there is Inès Spiridonov (Seuls, Iskander: Shadow of the River) as Lucas’s girlfriend, Chloe. Spiridonov has a casual coolness about her that works perfectly in her portrayal of Chloe. Individually, these actors are all fantastic, but together they leave a lasting impression.
Visually, Barbarians has a lot to draw the viewer’s eye. The location is fantastic. This sprawling, spacious, luxurious house that is both modern and rustic nestled in the countryside is the perfect place for murder and carnage. The home, as well as the monolith, almost become living entities and characters of their own, especially in how they are coveted by most of the characters throughout the film. Even though I wish this had been explored further, the folk and Pagan elements also add to the mystery while creating beautiful images. Everything from the animal masks that are simultaneously stunning and horrifying to the imposing enigma that is the monolith helps to pull the audience further and further into the film.
Barbarians is a taut thriller with a dash of humor and folk horror sprinkled in. It’s the kind of film that not only keeps you at the edge of your seat, but also makes you chuckle at what would be considered inappropriate times. Because it’s a quick, 90-minute film, it definitely had room to expand upon the folk and Pagan elements it hints at, but the film is still enjoyable as is. The performances are superb and both the set and visuals are quite eye-catching. All in all, Barbarians is a strong debut for Dorfman, who is surely going to be a writer/director horror fans will want to keep an eye on.
OVERALL RATING: 7/10