Tunneling into the ruins of #metoo in ‘Barbarian’

Images courtesy 20th Century Studios.

7/10 Five years after The New York Times broke that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was accused of varying degrees of sexual misconduct by dozens of women who had come to him for employment and used his wealth, power and reputation to systematically cover it up, a story that took decades to report and which set off an international reckoning with sexual assault mostly under the banner of the #metoo movement, it’s difficult to see whether or not the world has really changed. The revelation of the scale of abuse, the horrifying realization of old sexist jokes was shocking, but the way the reporting played out made it seem unlikely that any real change could result. Barbarian bores into this anxiety, the knowledge of the scope of abuse and the creeping, back-of-your-head understanding that nothing is going to change.

476 Barbary St., Brightmoor, Detroit- Tess Marshall (Gerogina Campbell) arrives at her Airbnb to discover it double-booked and Keith Toshko (Bill Skarsgård) already settled in. They arrange to share the house, but the next day, Marshall discovers an underground lair with evidence of human captivity.

Barbarian has all the thrills and chills and jumps and screams to satisfy an eager pre-Halloween audience, but it feels distinctly like a high-effort edit bringing energy to a first-draft movie. Writer/director Zach Cregger is never quite sure what he wants from his feature debut, but he sure wants a lot of it. The biggest cue is the loud, hyper-aggressive sound design – every scare gets a sting, every reveal gets a swell, and all of it is quite invasive.

“First draft” is quite literal – the title is a placeholder.

You can almost feel editor Joe Murphy and composer Anna Drubich churning the movie into a crowdpleaser in post-production. They know people are coming for the jump scares, so they bring the noise, but Barbarian doesn’t bring much else from a technical perspective. It’s a very simple mystery box, drawing tension from viewers’ morbid curiosity instead of the danger onscreen, teasing the lurid details that are at best described, not shown. This wants to be a furious grindhouse/exploitation movie sopping with gore, but all the raping and most of the violence is left to the imagination. Contrast with something like Alien, in which all time is spent dealing with the danger rather than fleshing out its background, for how this scenario should play out.

Mystery boxes can be fun when they’re not stretched out over several years, but the third time Barbarian smashcuts to black as its action is about to peak is when my patience is just about spent.

If the movie is more concerned with plot than action, but that’s because its main anxiety is possibility – Barbarian is paralyzed with fear of being raped, specifically the fear that results from being inundated with stories of systemic sexual assault in Hollywood during the #metoo movement. This isn’t a fear that could have existed before the Weinstein story, it’s a tension that blankets the air, unifying complete strangers in the way only mass media can.

Barbarian begins steeped in a more mundane fear of sexual assault, and as it goes on and rips more plot points from the headlines and as we go into the basement and spiral deep underground into the subconscious, the imagery is of cages and black tunnels lit by modern flashlights not designed to illuminate anything further than a few inches and danger seeming to dance just at the edge of visibility. Everything that’s been going on down here has been going on for quite some time, and modern technology is little help several stories underground.

Eager to foster mystery around its premise, Barbarian churned out some terrific ‘80s-style cover art, though its promotional material was mostly limited to imagery of Marshall silhouetted in the door underground.

Smartphones and the ways social media shapes behavior in 2022 play a central role, bringing our characters together in the first place and then driving actions further into the plot. Marshall is extremely online throughout the film, and it’s very easy to imagine her spending her days doomscrolling, using media intended to equip her with information to self-harm – even cut off from her phone, she kind of tries to doomscroll her way through the movie, working to gather the horrible details of her situation and then stewing in them instead of trying to work them to her advantage.

A smothering pessimism hangs over the first act as Marshall considers and tries to head off every avenue toward sexual assault. Toshko, who’s just as hyper-aware of the danger he presents, tries to force her into comfort with his charm instead of by simply keeping his distance in a way that quickly becomes humiliating to watch.

There’s no one to root for here. Both of these characters are cowards who eagerly demean themselves in order to navigate each other’s worst assumptions, and neither of them develop an ounce of grit that they don’t have to. Toshko is the only man who isn’t a rapist, but he explicitly lets his chauvinism imprison him. Every single decision Marshall makes is out of fear, and she loses all Final Girl credibility as she submits to her captors apparently without struggle and leaves fellow captives to die at every opportunity.

If the #metoo movement was about women using the unifying power of social media to bring systemic sexual abuse to light, Barbarian is about that not happening, about all these survivors’ stories resulting in little public change and no individual growth. It is a portrait of a woman who has inundated herself with stories of rape not to be a better ally or protect herself in any functional way, but to nourish her own fear. She comes into the film no more resourceful, just more scared, and spends the runtime in the dark.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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