DISCLAIMER: Mild spoilers abound for Charles Dorfman‘s Barbarians.
What happens when a celebratory dinner among friends morphs into a dinner from hell? Barbarians, Charles Dorfman’s directorial debut, presents a dramatic, horror-laced tale featuring mild-mannered filmmaker Adam (Iwan Rheon), his charming artist girlfriend Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno), his vainglorious real estate agent pal Lucas (Tom Cullen) and Lucas’s artist-aspiring partner Chloe (Inès Spiridonov).
The quartet comes together to celebrate Adam’s birthday. At the same time, Eva and Adam hope to seal the deal with Lucas regarding acquiring their dream home, a lush countryside house that Lucas plucked from a family who had owned it for generations.
Right out of the gate, there’s simmering tension lingering between Adam and Lucas — more like suppressed resentment on Adam’s end. Secrets and exposed lies seep through the cracks in their crumbling friendship façade, and the evening takes a turn none of the dinner attendees expected. What starts as a casual get-together transforms into a fight for survival.
Firstly, all actors deliver grounded, nuanced performances, but Moreno and Cullen truly soar as the standouts. Moreno injects Eva with the sweetness and vulnerability you’d expect from a sensitive artist, but her venomous, sharp edges emerge as the film progresses. There’s a fieriness and tenacity that’s undeniable. In terms of likeability, she’s the most endearing of the bunch.
Conversely, Cullen infuses Lucas with the vanity and pomposity you’d expect from a social-media-hungry, affluent, image-obsessed real estate agent. It’s easy to despise him, meaning Cullen successfully executes his job.
Barbarians‘ run time clocks in at one hour and 30 minutes, spending 45 minutes establishing our characters without leaning into the horror-thriller genre under which the film falls. Sure, there are a few preliminary jump scares, but we hardly understand what this movie should be before the 45-minute mark.
Given the lack of action initially, one might think Barbarians would make a better play than a film. It’s dialogue-heavy, reminiscent of old Hollywood films. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t work for a movie of this genre.
While character development is crucial, Barbarians throws all its eggs into that basket, seemingly forgetting it’s a thriller. The slow pacing might deter some viewers. The intricate character work is rewarding, in a way. It helps inform future choices when the horror elements take hold; however, in the second act, the impact of the exposed secrets flies out of the window as the characters only care about survival.
Specific imagery pops up initially that doesn’t make sense when considering the movie as a whole, nor does the said imagery receive a payoff when the action gains momentum. But the film expertly builds tension between Lucas and Adam, keeping us on our toes until the dam breaks and their secrets spew forth.
Barbarians boasts stunning aerial shots, beautiful cinematography capturing the otherworldly countryside and unique angles. Besides the performances, the camerawork is a highlight.
The inconsistent pacing makes the film feel bottom-heavy since the action unfurls in the second act. But when it takes off, there are a handful of wonderfully tense moments and white-knuckled beats, with a few fight sequences that feel more faithful to what Barbarians wants to be.
Overall, Barbarians is a film that can’t decide what it is. It explores themes of toxic masculinity, class and colonialism, but it’s certainly not the first horror-thriller to dive into these themes. While it doesn’t do anything innovative, it’s still a decent watch, and if you’ve got an hour and 30 minutes to kill, you’ll enjoy Barbarians for the character work and fantastic performances.
But as a horror-thriller, Barbarians‘ pacing suffers under the weight of its indecisiveness and focuses solely on character development instead of facilitating the survival plot. Believe it or not, you can hone in on both.
Barbarians hits theaters and on-demand on Friday, April 1.