Fantastic Fest 2021: Barbarians

A compelling study of male ego in a minimalist setting that grips from start to finish.

Synopsis: A dinner party in a country house that sees four friends come together for a birthday celebration. But as the night progresses secrets emerge and unsettling events begin to unfold around them.

Every now and then, a film appears that I adore watching but ultimately dread trying to review. This is certainly the case with Barbarians because it is one of those films that is likely best experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible for the full effect to land.

The dinner party given a horror edge is one that follows a relatively simple formula, taking characters at odds and cocooning them together for an extended period of time. That this high pressure environment has given us gems like The Invitation means Barbarians sets itself some high expectations early on. Thankfully, the sharp scripting, dedicated performances and the attempts to shake the format to some degree makes Barbarians an absorbing watch.

Kicking off with a glossy advertisement starring Lucas (Tom Cullen), Barbarians quickly brings the viewer into the lavish, insulated surroundings of the characters. However, within those first few minutes has thrown its first disarming curve ball. It is this smooth surface occasionally showing glimpses of ugly horror that underpins the entire film, unseating the viewer in a way that continues with the escalations that the film has to offer. Despite providing an intense experience, writer/director Charles Dorfman weaves in plenty of dark, often awkward humour, making the conversations flow more naturally. The house that contains the film’s events is suitably showy, again placing a surface sheen with an underlying ugliness and threat.

Rattling through contentious dinner party conversation allows all the performers to really live in their characters for an extended period. It is through those quick movements through subjects like politics that widen the gap between the characters. In the interests of keeping this spoiler-free, perhaps the best way I can describe the film is as a spiralling masculine melodrama in which unspoken tensions gradually find a voice. Separated by stings featuring striking typography, this is a film that consistently intrudes upon itself, disrupts its own flow and is all the better for this, resulting in an engaging and often surprising experience. Some may find the more drastic tone changes a little difficult to keep up with at first, but there are rewards to be found in letting it wash over you.

Tom Cullen is excellent as Lucas – spilling over with bravado and a near-constant social media presence. Cullen is fiercely impressive, conveying changes within Lucas through the use of his signature ‘hey guys, what’s up?’ on social media channels that changes in tone as the film progresses. That sense of both his audacious, go-getting masculinity and social media persona both being performances hiding something more sinister is woven throughout. In contrast, Iwan Rheon’s Adam is more restrained, but seemingly haunted by his reluctance to act in the same way as Lucas. An early confrontation with a poorly fox sums up his reluctance to act, a thread that continues in his struggle to complete his first feature. Rheon equips Adam with a nervous energy that threatens to unfurl throughout the narrative. The male characters are the focus here, but that doesn’t mean that their partners are underwritten, standing out as capable and well-realised by comparison.

For those who love their films about masculinity in crisis, Barbarians is absolutely the film for you, with Tom Cullen and Iwan Rheon providing stirring performances at its centre.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Barbarians screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.

Author: ScaredSheepless

Film and television fan, with a particular love for horror.

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