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Peele-n-Twist

A Northern Virginia filmmaker swings for the fences with the #MeToo horror-comedy “Barbarian,” and strikes out.

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Is another contemporary American filmmaker more imitated than Jordan Peele?

It seems as if every other horror movie I see these days is after the secret sauce of “Get Out,” which might include one part sketch comedy, one part slow-burn dread, three parts progressive self-consciousness, and two parts “person enters a strange new setting that’s to be explained with a twist borrowed from another movie.”

In a month’s span alone, there’s been “The Invitation,” now “Barbarian,” and soon, “Don’t Worry Darling.”

In the case of “Barbarian,” writer-director Zach Cregger wants to do for #MeToo what Peele did for Black Lives Matter in “Get Out:” Cauterize tensions with a social horror movie that hopefully gets talked about around the watercooler. That political consciousness hems in Cregger, in the tradition of most modern horror filmmakers, but “Barbarian” works for a while as a calling card. Cregger is worth watching.

Tess (Georgina Campbell) and Keith (Bill Skarsgård) are strangers who’ve been double booked in an Airbnb in the outskirts of Detroit. Since “Barbarian” is initially told from Tess’s point of view, and since Keith was at the Airbnb first, we suspect that he’s a weirdo setting her up. Cregger gets good mileage out of this setup, and for a while his messaging coalesces organically with the suspense. Me Too has made us all very self-conscious, of course. Keith doesn’t want to seem like a rapist in waiting, and so he’s so courtly he’s creepy anyway, while Tess is aware of the risks involved in potentially agreeing to share this house with a strange man. As the plot develops, it becomes more and more clear that “Barbarian” is positively hinged on male shame.

You’re meant to suspect that Keith is the film’s monster, which would explain his need to accommodate Tess. If he was innocent, why would he be desperate to humor her? Out of guilt, of course, which encourages a chivalry that women may ironically resent as much as other patterns of male behavior. Tess initially resents Keith’s politeness, and I found myself, political correctness be damned, resenting Tess’s resentment. If Keith is on the up and up, he’s within his right to be as suspicious of Tess as she is of him. Which is to say that Cregger does a lovely job of setting up a plot that abounds in tricky, seemingly effortless emotional resonances.

After a few rounds of strange door openings and wanderings about, Tess finds a basement that appears clean and normal—with the exception of a spare, dirty room in a subbasement that’s laughably, obviously vile. It might as well be the central broadcasting studio for the Torture and Kill Network (TKN). From there, Tess finds a sub-subbasement that appears to be piped in from Clive Barker’s writings, and here the nature of Tess and Keith’s relationship is decisively clarified and “Barbarian” takes a radical turn.

Once Cregger springs his secret, “Barbarian” collapses into preachiness. Like Peele’s “Nope,” the film makes sense thematically but is ridiculous on a simple plot level. The film’s menace thematically rhymes with a protagonist who’s introduced in the middle of the film, AJ (Justin Long), a TV director who’s accused of raping an actress. AJ is a potential perpetrator of sexual violence, and the film’s true menace was born from such violence, representing for men an act of the chickens coming home to roost.

But after the tension between Tess and Keith, after the setup of AJ, after the mystery of the double booking and the strange fact that the super-bougie rental exists in the middle of a dilapidated slum, after the labyrinths and flashbacks, after all this huffing and puffing, in other words, the monster seems nearly beside the point. It’s a puny payoff for such elaborate teasing and foreshadowing. For a twist or a big reveal to work, it has to surpass our imagination. The filmmaker is playing a game with the audience to see who can come up with the best solution, and in this case, he loses.

Cregger’s twist reduces “Barbarian” to nonsense that can’t be justified even by the metaphorical dimensions of the horror genre. For instance, AJ owns the rental where Tess and Keith meet, and neither he nor anyone else except for the local homeless population seems to know that it contains a vast maze of sadistic debauchery. Considering that the heroes found said maze in seconds this seems like a stretch. Presented as comedy, such a revelation might’ve worked. Long seems to sense this necessity, playing the film for bro-style farce that helps get us through long expository passages, but Cregger doesn’t seem certain with that tone. The contrivances here feel like the work of a writer who’s tied himself in knots trying to say something big about perpetuated cycles of sexual violence.

Okay, a hint: One of the films that appears to drive “Barbarian” is Wes Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs,” which has gained a favorable reputation over the years. And, indeed, Craven’s movie plays like a rough draft for the progressive horror films we’re seeing today. It has a big idea about utilizing genre tropes to express outrage at racism and classism, and it is utterly absurd and indifferently directed.

Throughout his career, you never knew what you were going to get with Craven. Sometimes he was a classicist, sometimes a hack, and sometimes a hack seemingly purposefully, as part of a higher aim. Cregger’s uneven, occasionally impressive direction captures all three flavors of Craven at once, with Peele’s earnestness as a chaser. For all the effort on display though, “Barbarian” is easy to shrug off. That ludicrous monster is a swing for the fences that simply does not connect.

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