Directed & Written
by Zach Cregger
Starring Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long, Matthew Patrick Davis, & Richard Brake.
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay
contains significant SPOILERS!
This is your only warning.
Zach Cregger’s Barbarian is a uniquely twisted piece of contemporary horror about Tess (Georgina Campbell), who arrives in Detroit for a job interview and goes to her Airbnb rental but discovers a guy named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already staying there. As Tess and Keith attempt to figure things out, they reluctantly share the place since all the hotels in town are booked up for a convention. The house starts to feel strange the next day when Tess discovers a tunnel in the basement, along with an unsettling room that creeps her out. And that’s only the beginning of the horrors Tess runs into within the house on Barbary Street in Brightmoor.
Cregger’s screenplay is structured in such a way that we get several different perspectives within a single story, all of which play into themes concerning gender and racial dynamics, as well as urban decay. Barbarian is also a subtle horror genre exploration of dying empires, from the American Empire and its many troubles in Detroit, to the empires of individual bad men, whose inability to see the violence of their errors, or the ramifications of it later, creates monstrous conditions in which others are forced to live.
One of the best parts of Barbarian is when Tess and Keith have a conversation about the gender dynamics of danger. Tess tells Keith: “The world‘s different for you. Guys get to blast their way through life making messes. Girls have to be more careful.” She makes the point with the example of their situation, and how if he were in her shoes, showing up to an Airbnb as she did to find it’s occupied, he’d probably just barge on in because, for a man, there’s little-to-no-danger in it. Whereas Tess, as a woman, couldn’t just stroll inside with a strange man without considering all the potential dangers first. The concept of gendered reactions to danger returns later in the film, in a funny yet terrifying way.
There are a couple fun literary and mythical references in Cregger’s film that speak to larger themes in the story. First, there’s a seemingly throwaway shot of a snake charm hanging from the rearview mirror in Tess’s car, though it feels much more special once we consider the influence of Ancient Rome on Barbarian; something I’ll unpack further in a moment. Although Medusa originates from Greek mythology, she was routinely depicted in Roman texts, beginning with the canonical poet Ovid. The snake charm in Tess’s car acts as wildly understated foreshadowing pointing to the Mother, a Medusa figure of revenge warped irreparably by the violence of man. Second, when A.J. looks through Keith’s things left in the house he finds a copy of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. In Jane Eyre, a man locks away his wife, Bertha Mason, in a secret room, only for Bertha to get free and cause a bunch of strangeness, culminating in a massive fire. In this light, Barbarian becomes a contemporary re-working of Brontë’s novel, a Gothic horror about a man locking his prey/offspring away in a basement, only for one of them to eventually break free and terrorise the neighbourhood.
“Neighbourhood’s going to Hell.”
Barbarian being set in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighbourhood opens up all sorts of ideas about urban decay, and the racial dynamics in the plot—specifically Frank’s whiteness v. Tess and the houseless man as people of colour dealing with the fallout of his hideous actions—speak to the idea of rot from the inside rather than out. Brightmoor is a real neighbourhood in Detroit, often nicknamed Blight More. Sharon Cornelissen writes: “Brightmoor was founded as a working-class suburban subdivision of Detroit in 1922. Its developer only sold its mass-produced, wood-slatted bungalows to ‘100% white American people’ (Detroit Free Press 1924) and many early Brightmoor residents were White Appalachian families (Loeb 2001). The neighborhood remained 98.9% White as of 1970.” Eventually, white flight took place and with fleeing white residents also went the local government’s general care of the area, so as the neighbourhood got more Black, the resources evaporated, too. It was never a Black migration to Brightmoor that made things worse, it was the response of racism by white people that ultimately destroyed the neighbourhood.
And that’s where the number 476 comes into play in Cregger’s film.
The number of the house on Barbary Street where Tess and Keith stay is 476. Given that it’s Barbary St. and the film’s title is Barbarian, 476 is an intriguing number because it’s the same year as the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Could be nothing—or, the dilapidated setting of Brightmoor, Detroit, combined with the barbarian references, make Barbarian a horror allegory about the fall of the American Empire, or empires in general.
If we transpose all the barbarians v. Rome ideas to Barbarian and Detroit in the middle of the 20th century, Black folks became the new barbarians perceived by racists as invading the American Empire, just as all foreigners outside of Greek/Roman traditions were perceived to be ‘barbarians.’ The real U.S. barbarians were from White America, just as (one of) the real barbarian(s) in Cregger’s film is Frank, a part of the predominantly white Brightmoor neighbourhood and not some outside force to scapegoat like Black people, similar to how the Roman Empire crumbled because of its own issues and not solely due to the so-called barbarian tribes invading Rome. Not to mention that Rome created many of the problems it had with the barbarians, due to either pure prejudice or greed.
Sounds a lot like America. And a lot like Frank, who sequestered himself behind his private empire’s walls and went on breeding/inbreeding until everything fell apart. Cregger denies the 476 number on the house having anything to do with the Roman Empire, but along with the house being on Barbary Street and the film’s title being Barbarian, it all lends to a reading of the film as being not only about urban decay in Detroit—and just being a pretty creepy, bad ass horror flick—but about symptoms of dying empires, whether national, regional, or personal.
What’s so interesting later in the film is when A.J. (Justin Long)—in a bad financial way because his own empire is crumbling due to rapey behaviour—comes back to Detroit to check on the house he’s been renting as an Airbnb. There’s a whole host of things here that work with the urban decay theme, given that Airbnb has destroyed housing markets all over the world while many cities and towns are in the grips of rental crises. Most importantly, we see A.J.’s admittedly hilarious excitement about gentrification once he discovers the elaborate tunnels deep beneath his property and he grabs a tape measurer to start mapping out how much extra space he can list, not realising it’s leading him to his doom.
This is where Barbarian‘s themes about empire and bad men merge, as we return to Tess’s talk with Keith about the gendered dynamics of dangerous situations: because A.J. is a greedy white gentrifier, he doesn’t think about any potential danger in a weird tunnel system he just discovered below the house he owns, doubly so because he’s a man and men don’t think about danger in the same way as people of other genders. Bad men, just like bad empires, don’t recognise the violent error of their ways, often until it’s too late and the party’s more than over.
3 thoughts on “BARBARIAN: Urban Decay, Horrific Gender Dynamics, & the Fall of Empires”
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Wow. I already got one allegory in the movie (that of Detroit), but I had no idea of these other meanings. Do creators conspire as a class in a game of denying allusions in their works like the 476 in this one? I’ve noticed a pattern of that sort of thing, and wonder if it’s a superstition that the magic will end if they reveal it, or just a game they play by winking at each other. A friend of mine crammed a TV show of his chock full of clues that I can’t convince strangers were intended, because it seems he’ll always deny them, so I have even less hope of ever getting creators who are strangers to me to admit their own.
I definitely think the 476 is intended and the director probably just doesn’t want to openly admit it, especially since the film is called Barbarian and the street is named Barbary (which is a fictional street). Not all directors or artists like dissecting their own work, so I assume it’s just a way of pretending to deny it while viewers make up their own minds about it all.