Friday, October 28, 2022

We Have Met the Barbarians and they are...: On Barbarian


Every mention of the film Barbarian carries with it the warning to not spoil anything, to experience it completely ignorant so as to be best frightened by its particular twists and turns. [Fair Warning: I will spoil everything here] For that reason it is not entirely clear if the title refers to anything. It could just be a vaguely menacing word. Many horror movies from the last few years seem to take their title from a series of such words, Insidious, Malignant, Terrifier, as if someone was just looking up “evil” or “scary” in a thesaurus. The opening scenes of the film, however, suggest that this title is not just a vaguely scary word, after all, it would be an odd choice suggesting that the we are running out of synonyms for scary, but that the film is very much about what it means to be a barbarian and what it means to be civilized. 

 The film opens when Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Airbnb rental in Detroit. Everything seems to go wrong at once, it is pouring rain, someone named Marcus keeps calling even as she has no interest in answer, and, worst of all, the key is not in the lockbox to the house. It turns out that the Airbnb has been double booked. A man named Keith (Bill Skarsgard) is already inside. He invites her in, and offers to share the house for the night, even opting to take the couch. It is around these gestures that the film makes clear what is at stake in civilization and what might define a barbarian. Keith makes her a cup of tea even though she declines his offer. The camera lingers over the tea cup asking the question if perhaps he slipped something into it. The threat of violence, of specifically sexual violence, hovers unstated over all of these scenes.A gesture of friendliness and comfort could also contain a threat. However, as the two talk and get to know each other, it becomes clear that not only does he not mean her any harm, they actually have things in common, and are both interested in Detroit’s emerging arts scene. For a few minutes one could forget that one is watching a horror movie, and believe that one is watching the “meet cute” of a romantic comedy.


Horror returns the next day. First, the sunlight reveals that the rented house is alone in a block of dilapidated and abandoned buildings. (Like It Follows before it, Barbarian uses Detroit to be a scene in which urban decay is the setting for modern horror.) Second, when Tess returns to the house later that day she is chased by an apparently homeless and unstable person who aggressively yells at her to get out of that house. These are all only the beginning. The real horror begins when Tess goes into the basement to search for toilet paper and finds a subbasement, and a basement below that, both of which seem to be constructed as prisons or torture chambers. One room is just a bed, a bucket, and a video camera on a tripod. A bloody handprint on the wall suggest that the camera has documented unimaginable horrors. When Keith returns to the house we begin to see how unimaginable these horrors are, in exploring the subbasement he is attacked and killed by a monstrous woman, seven feet tall, naked, deformed, and capable of massive brute strength. Before the audience can even make sense of what they have seen the screen goes black, and cuts to a convertible driving along sunny day on the California highway. 

The car is being driven by  AJ Gilbride (Justin Long) and is takes the film awhile to connect him, and sunny California, to a tunnel under a home in Detroit. In the meantime he has the worst day of his life, but one that has nothing to do with monsters, at least the literal kind, at least yet. AJ is a sitcom actor. He gets a call informing of him that he has been accused of sexual assault by one of his costars. His life begins to fall apart quickly after this, his show is cancelled, even his financial planner wants nothing to do with him. It is only then, in a brief mention of rental properties in Michigan that we learn of his connection to the house that opened the film. AJ travels to Detroit to escape the negative attention and liquidate his property. He finds the house exactly as Tess and Keith left it, their bags still on the bed, toiletries near the sink. He too eventually finds the basement, and the hidden tunnels below, setting up one of the funniest scenes in the whole film. AJ immediately googles the question whether or not basements count as part of the square feet of a home in its listing. What Tess sees as a horrible scene of past violence, he sees as an investment opportunity. He immediately get a tape measure and begins to calculate the size of his investment property. It is then that he meets "the mother" creature that killed Keith and he is thrown into a pit with Tess who has been its captive. Once again the film cuts from darkness and horror to the light of day, to a flashback to the same house on Barbary Lane years earlier when the block was a picture of suburban paradise. 

Horror films have their own particular economy, their own particular way of regulating and maintaining fear and anxiety. In general this is indexed to sunset and sunrise. When the sun comes up the audience breathes a sigh of relief. What is interesting about Barbarian is that every time it cuts from the dark tunnels beneath the house to the sunlight of the world above the momentary relief from the horror actually deepens the extent of the horror. Even though we do not see the rape that AJ is accused of, his actions, referring to his accuser as a lying bitch, and his description of her "reluctance" when telling the story to his "bro," make it abundantly clear that he is exactly the sort of person that Tess feared in the opening scene, justifying her wariness at spending the night in a house with a strange man. 

The second cut to daylight goes even further into the barbarism hinted at the beginning of the film, in it we meet Frank the past owner of the home. Voices on the car radio date the scene to be during the beginning years of the Reagan administration, and before deindustrialization devastated Detroit. He goes to the grocery store searching for "baby stuff" and meets an incredibly friendly worker at the supermarket who is all too willing to help him with his "home birth." She even sells him the nursing videotape that we see later. Frank then stalks a young woman he sees at the grocery store, masquerading as a Detroit Public Works employee to get into her house and leave a window unlocked. Later, when we he returns home, his neighbor tells him of his plans to sell his house, beginning the "white flight" that would transform the neighborhood into the broken down ruins we see in the present day. The exodus from the neighborhood only expands Frank's domain, his property grows, at least underground, as his neighbors leave.

The scenes with Frank are striking, because not only do they begin to spell out the backstory of the house, and the horrors that took place there, but they do so in a way in which the darkness of the horrors contrast with the brightness of the day. Frank is the architect of the underground subbasement. It was where he kept the women he kidnapped and raped, their children, and the children of those children. "Mother" the creature lording over the dungeon now is the unholy offspring of those offspring. All of this is revealed not only during the light of day, but in the face of friendly neighbors and cashiers. Frank's world seems to be not just that of a world gone by, of large American cars and VHS tapes, but a fantasy of what America supposedly used to be, a world where neighbors stop by to say hi and you can always find good help. 

Who then is the barbarian of the film's title? The obvious answer would be "Mother," she is naked, speaking only in grunts, so outside of civilization to be almost feral. However, she is the product of Frank, of his cruelty and brutality, cruelty and brutality that did not hide in the dark, but took place nearly in full sunlight. Jameson writes Today all politics is about real estate. Postmodern politics is essentially a matter of land grabs, on a local as well as a global scale.” I have always wondered about this line, but it is hard not to see in the case of this film the connection between property, privilege, and power. Frank is able to exploit the private nature of his home, the fact that his neighbors do not care what he does so long as he keeps the yard clean and muffles the screams from the basement. The two monstrous men of the film, Frank and AJ, are not only both rapists, but they are both owners of the house, and they each use this property to protect them. For Frank it becomes the scene where his crimes take place, where the evidence is hidden away, while for AJ selling it can make it possible to afford the kind of lawyer who could not only protect him from his crimes, but also silence his victim through an anti-defamation suit.

This connection between property and privilege is further underscored when Tess manages to escape and calls the police. That the police are going to be useless is almost a given in a horror movie, one the genre's consistent subversive elements, but the question is how are they going to be useless, are the going to be skeptical, arrogant, or simply overwhelmed. In this case the police do not believe Tess's stories of underground tunnels and monstrous women in part because she has no key to the house, and because her time spent underground has left her looking strung out and crazed. She is black woman without property and she is treated as such. The police are more inclined to arrest her for breaking the window than they are to break down a door to rescue someone. Police protect property not people. From the opening of the film, in which Tess is desperately calling the company who manages the Airbnb to get them to address the mistake of double booking the house, to the appearance of the police towards the end, the film is clear that those who own property are protected, even to the point that their crimes can go unnoticed, and those without are left exposed and vulnerable. As Benjamin says there is no document of civilization that is not also that of barbarism, and in this case what connects them is property, the private property of the home. The doctrine that makes the home one man's castle also makes it his dungeon and torture chamber.

The one person who offers real help, who believes Tess and tries to help her, is that man that screamed at her to get out of the house, a yell that was more of a warning than a threat. This man, Andre, offers both Tess and AJ help and shelter, but in the end he cannot shelter or protect them. Without a home he has no protection to offer, and mother kills him.

This deleted scene underscores the connection with property as well as how funny this film can be.

What then about "the Mother'? If she is not the barbarian of the film's title then what is she. How are we to read this monster. It is worth noting that she is excessively, even monstrously maternal. She kidnaps Tess and AJ not to torture or kill them, but to keep them and care for them. Her one bit of civilization, of education, is the instructional video tape on nursing, and, in one of the most talked about scenes of the film, she forces AJ to nurse from her breast. I am sure that Freudians and Lacanians will have a lot to say about this monstrous mother, but I am tempted to read it politically. If Frank is the true barbarian, and his evil is tied to property, to the privation and seclusion that the home makes possible, and if the home continues to be a condition of violence even as it is changed to an asset, to revenue, then the home as the privatization of care, as Sophie Lewis puts it, is both the condition of that seclusion and what it in some sense represses. Even in the underground dungeon that Frank has created babies are raised, care goes on even in a place that exists for the purpose of violence and exploitation. Of course that care has become warped by its very relation to the violence that made it possible. Thus we can in some sense reverse Benjamin's saying, there is civilization, care and nurturing, in every element of barbarism. This seems to be the real merit of Barbarian in all of its twists and shocks, in the end it changes how we see both a suburban home and the homeless that surround it. seeing barbarism where we are used to seeing civilization and civilization where we might expect barbarism. 

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