Barbarians is blunt-force cinema at its worst, beating viewers over the head with its shallow, pseudo-provocative gabble.
Barbarians is a home-invasion thriller that desperately wants to be a modern-day riff on Sam Peckinpah’s seminal portrait of male masculinity, 1971’s Straw Dogs, but which fails to even muster the energy of that film’s misguided 2011 remake. Writer-director Charles Dorfman, making his feature film debut, operates under the delusional belief that the tale he is spinning is both profound and insightful in its understanding of 21st-century power struggles, ultimately coming to the regressive conclusion that all it takes to be a real man is to wield a weapon and kill. Iwan Rheon stars as Adam, a wussy little shortstack who lives in a fancy new house in the Irish countryside with his far more financially successful girlfriend, Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a world-renowned sculptress. (Adam and Eva, get it?) Eva is currently working on a piece that is inspired by a local landmark called the Gaeta Stone, around which thousands gather each year to mark the solstice and changing of the seasons. The property itself is owned by Lucas (Tom Cullen), a piece-of-shit, hyper-masculine real estate developer who snared the land through shady means and who hopes to sell new developments for obscene amounts of cash. He is also an old college chum of Adam’s, the Alpha to his Omega, because this film is nothing if not a portrait of contrasts. Along with Lucas’s new girlfriend, Chloe (Inès Spiridonov), the four gather for an intimate celebration of Adam’s birthday, but end up getting far more than they bargained for as old rivalries, long-simmering resentments, and shocking secrets are revealed. And that’s even before three men adorned in Wicker Man-style bird masks show up to hold everyone hostage for reasons obvious to anyone who has ever seen a movie.
It takes nearly an hour of the 90-minute Barbarians to reach anything resembling thriller mode, with the majority of its running time devoted to the dick-measuring contest that is the friendship between Adam and Lucas. Adam is the sort of softie who, upon discovering an injured fox in his kitchen (don’t ask), tries to shoo it away instead of killing it with his bare hands, an act which the hunky groundskeeper (Connor Swindells) accomplishes with impressive precision, inspiring Eva to practically throw her panties at him in orgasmic glee. This is immediately followed by Adam filling up a bucket with water and putting on gloves to clean up the mess, because this movie has some cool things to say about how women are the ones who clean, and Adam is nothing if not a big ol’ girl. Lucas, meanwhile, walks around with an excess of Big Dick Energy, bragging about his martial arts skills and constantly asking others to hit him so he can show off his sick moves. It’s certainly no accident that these two men are portrayed as ridiculous, one-dimensional archetypes, but it also makes any investment in their fates an exercise in futility. It doesn’t help that both men are lying, cheating, duplicitous assholes, because this movie also wants to tackle self-entitled one-percenters who care nothing about the fate of the working man, with the final third of the film leaning into issues of class warfare — in addition to toxic masculinity — in the most shallow ways possible.
The film’s formal chops, meanwhile, are perfunctory at best, with Dorfman opting for a lot of aerial drone shots that highlight the geometrical beauty of the property but not much else, while point-and-shoot and the occasional Steadicam shots predictably give way to shaky handheld once the shit hits the fan. Barbarians also utilizes title cards at various points to introduce plot developments, such as “Tables Turned” and “Finale,” a stylistic choice that only succeeds in robbing the film of the suspense it so desperately craves. To be extra topical, at one point our protagonists talk about cryptocurrency and make allusions to Donald Trump, which is supposed to reveal the contemptuous nature of this group but really only makes one wonder if a right-wing wet dream like this one understands the hypocrisy in which it is trafficking. It’s ultimately the type of film that’s obvious in its desperation to force viewers to ask themselves the really deep questions, like, who are the real barbarians here? The gun-toting men who destroy private property and dump blood on people, or the narcissistic assholes who care more about fancy artwork than human life? Film scholars around the globe will surely be debating such profound insights for decades to come, as well as the meaning of the giant phallic sculpture that looms large over the property. Unfortunately for Barbarians, it comes up short in every facet, the film equivalent of a behemoth SUV constantly revving its engine to assert dominance but only succeeding in looking desperate and pathetic. Sometimes a small dick is just a small dick.