REVIEW: Barbarians [2022]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 89 minutes
    Release Date: April 1st, 2022 (UK)
    Studio: IFC Midnight
    Director(s): Charles Dorfman
    Writer(s): Charles Dorfman / Statten Roeg (story)

Nothing ever happened.

It opens with a commercial. Lucas (Tom Cullen) has his voiceover voice going full tilt to talk about this new venture he’s created on some English farmland that houses a mysterious, spiritual stone monolith that brings people from all over the world to visit every solstice. He’s partnered with the property’s owner to turn its historical and mystical allure into a high-end luxury community of beautiful country mansions. The initial test home is already complete—with a soon-to-be-finished replica monolith sculpted by his renowned artist friend Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno)—and more are planned if interest deems the project viable to proceed. With a professional video directed by his college friend (and Eva’s boyfriend) Adam (Iwan Rheon), you can be sure the offers will start rolling in fast.

Beyond the promise of something fantastical or occultist, however, lies an intriguing endcap wherein writer/director Charles Dorfman cuts from a dapper Lucas on-screen to a bloodied and bound Lucas relaying the advertisement’s same buzzy dialogue. How does he get from one place to the other? Well, that’s what we’ve come to see. Because while Barbarians begins with hopeful smiles courtesy of Adam’s birthday, it won’t be too long before things turn dark thanks to portents of evil and allusions to cracked romantic foundations. The former arrives via a dying fox. The latter from the strained emotions shared between Adam and Eva due to her loving the potential of buying this test home and his remaining unsure. So, we ready for the fireworks—secret revelations and masked intruders alike.

What about the stone, though? What will its impact be? I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that the answer is none because I wish someone had told me that much before I sat down to watch. My anticipation constantly being thwarted did the film no favors. You see marketing images of figures in animal skull masks and eventually enter Eva’s studio to find similar reference imagery and you automatically assume there will be some explanation of demonic intervention. That it is all simply window dressing for what proves a conventional thriller wherein every moving part is introduced in a way that guarantees its true value lies in future reveals disappoints because those underlying themes of betrayal and greed are never fully pushed past motivation either.

Are Dan’s (Connor Swindells) flirtations with Eva and scowls at Adam a distraction? Is Lucas’ business partner (the owner of the farmland) suddenly dying of a heart attack a coincidence? What about the bullying nature of Adam and Lucas’ dynamic making it seem “friend” is a loose term steeped in “what can you do for me?” rather than actual pleasure? I wanted it all to be red herrings and yet I let my brain jump to logical conclusions anyway in the hope I was wrong. But I wasn’t. Anyone paying attention will know where things are going and why and yet I still believed something more would arrive at the eleventh hour. Dorfman was so intently focusing upon the monolith that there must be something bigger at play.

To say I was letdown is therefore an understatement since I felt manipulated instead. You can’t utilize the cinematic and narrative tricks Dorfman does to ramp up excitement only to ignore them for the most generic progressions imaginable without eliciting some anger from audiences since doing so renders the journey a waste of time. There’s no cosmic horror. There’s no over-arching mythology soon to be uncovered. It’s literally just four people paying the price of one’s hubristic desire for excess. The masks, drugs, and guns are merely superficial means of prolonging the inevitable by creating false mystery and anticlimactic action. It doesn’t help that the person we’re supposed to care about (Adam) is as reprehensible as Lucas. Maybe more since the latter at least owns his contemptible behavior.

Adam is a liar and a cheat. Just because he’s drawn as a shyly quiet pacifist doesn’t make us blindly accept him as empathetic when the truth of what he’s done comes out. In all honesty, I kind of began rooting for the intruders as a result. After assuming who they were about ten minutes into the film, I was pretty certain they were in the right (even if their decision to take hostages, threaten lives, and destroy property was hardly the way to prove it). The whole ultimately becomes a farce thanks to every person involved being too self-obsessed to realize their own complicity in what’s happening. The rich artists. The jilted outsiders. The cutthroat charlatan. Poor Chloe (Inès Spiridonov) fell in love with the wrong man.

She’s young, though. The allure of Lucas’ lifestyle and looks got her attention and the proximity to Eva (her idol) surely just made the issues easier to swallow. Chloe admits he’s a “neanderthal” and is never not rolling her eyes at whatever new idiocy he delivers. She’s committed her own form of betrayal too, but she’s still the innocent of the group—the one with the least involvement in the overall scheme of things. It’s the sort of truth that both makes you want to pull for her survival above the rest and know that she’ll probably be the first to die. Why? Because Barbarians is all about leveraging its pieces in ways that move the whole forward. Chloe is worth more to those ends dead than alive.

And that’s the real problem. Dorfman treats his characters like pieces on a board serving his whims. They aren’t three-dimensional people. If the filmmakers don’t care about them, how can we? Adam is a director to serve a purpose to Lucas. Eva is his girlfriend so that her also being the commissioned artist living at the house can negate the need for another character. Lucas is an asshole in order to warrant enemies. And Chloe is the throw-in to cause one more wrinkle of jealousy and drama before the film can shift into sadism. So, we watch everyone hit their checkpoints, laugh when each destination proves our guesses correct, and pray for someone to throw a grenade and wake us from the monotony. Sadly, that explosion never came.

[1] Iwan Rheon as ‘Adam’ and Catalina Sandino Moreno as ‘Eva’ in Charles Dorfman’s BARBARIANS. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.
[2] Charles Dorfman’s BARBARIANS. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.
[3] (left to right) Tom Cullen as ‘Lucas,’ Iwan Rheon as ‘Adam,’ Catalina Sandino Moreno as ‘Eva,’ and Inès Spiridonov as ‘Chloe’ in Charles Dorfman’s BARBARIANS. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.

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