A good single location thriller can be the perfect calling-card for a new director. Buried, Pontypool, Locke; with the right slow-burn of a script, a strong lead and a bit of ingenuity behind the camera, a little can go an incredibly long way. So it’s something of a shame that Barbarians – the directorial debut of established producer Charles Dorfman, and starring Game of Thrones’ iconic bastard Iwan Rheon – doesn’t reach anywhere near the same heights, struggling to find a solid identity, or really any sense of tension, amidst its dinner party drama.
Rheon plays harshly against type as a softly-spoken filmmaker, locking horns with his machismo prick of a best friend-stroke-landlord (Tom Cullen) over his own birthday dinner, trading backhanded comments about all sorts of manly things, like money, and meat, and killing animals. Eventually things escalate beyond words, and Dorfman’s plot takes its fair share of unearned turns, finally erupting into something closer to what genre fans might be hoping for in its third act. But the real issue here isn’t just that it takes much too long to get there, it’s that when Barbarians does actually start to do something with its premise, we’re long, long past caring.
What’s on the screen here feels like an early draft over a finished product; characters barely exist beyond one-dimensional stereotypes, there’s a silly amount of smack-you-in-the-face obvious metaphor (it’s about toxic masculinity, by the way), and the plot lumbers from pointless chat to random reveal, going nowhere fast – or really anywhere at all.
None of these things are good, obviously. But all are at least forgivable – if the film in question doesn’t take itself too seriously, and has a couple of well-timed, fun-fuelled pay offs in its back pocket for the finale.
Unfortunately, Barbarians is not built for the low-rent genre film that it actually ends up being, instead covered head-to-toe in a holier-than-though, faux-arthouse sheen that wishes it was more A24 than FrightFest. More than half the film is lazily written conversations about hot button topics like social media and cryptocurrency that don’t actually say anything at all, and do nothing to build the sense of slow-burn tension it’s trying to wrangle. Everything is chopped together in bluntly titled ‘chapters’ with unimaginative, pressure-killing names like ‘INVASION’ and ‘TABLES TURN’. There’s even a few smatterings of vaguely surreal imagery dotted about, which do little more than weigh down the tiny amount of action left.
Dorfman is begging for this to be more high-brow than it is, desperately trying to be deep and meaningful, despite having absolutely nothing nuanced or original to say. Alpha-male masculinity is bad? And complicated? Fine. Sure. But we know that; almost every single home invasion thriller since Straw Dogs has landed on the same. There’s nothing wrong with trying to have a conversation with your audience, but a pretty significant part of that is that you have to be saying something (anything), and Dorfman’s got little more to offer than a shrug here.
When the action does finally start to rack up, with the pay-offs long past due, the result is fairly limp but enjoyable all the same. Rheon gives his underdeveloped softboi his best, and Dorfman’s script goes exactly where we need it to, plot-wise. It’s not exactly what you would call ‘fun’ or even that rewarding, but it’s something. Even though we don’t entirely care about what happens to the characters, and there’s barely an inkling of proper internal conflict to be resolved, the clean spectacle in the dying moments is appreciated.
But when that’s the nicest thing you can say about a thriller, you know you’re in trouble. It’s hard to ignore that Barbarians is very poorly written, and even with a largely talented cast, its energies are almost always focussed in entirely the wrong places. There are better, deeper and far more satisfying thrillers very similar to this, so sadly there’s little to recommend here.