The setup would work for a rom com. While traveling to Detroit for a job interview, Tess (Georgina Campbell) discovers that her Airbnb is double-booked, already occupied by one of the acting world’s innumerable Skarsgårds. (This one is called Bill, and he made his name eekily enough as Pennywise in It.) This fella, Keith, either seems like a creep trying to play normal or a normie trying to flirt without seeming like a creep. He makes a show of opening a bottle of wine in plain view, to prove he has no plans to roofie Tess. But it’s dark. It’s raining. The neighborhood is … questionable. Tess decides to stay.
This is the first of a series of wrong decisions the characters in writer-director Zach Cregger’s debut film Barbarian will make. It’s a true bait-and-switch of a horror flick in the best way, teasing you with a three-dimensional setting inhabited by well-rounded adults… who nonetheless act no brighter than the teen fodder in a slasher flick. Barbarian is at times a very traditional shouting-no!!!-at-the-screen visit to the cineplex, and at others nothing like that at all. Cregger, who made his name as part of sketch comedy team The Whitest Kids U’ Know, knows not to the let the jokes undercut the frights, and vice versa.
Eventually, there will be a need to go into the basement. There, Tess discovers an impossibly intricate set of catacombs that she does not wisely turn away from. To complicate matters, the home’s recently #metoo-ed owner (Justin Long), a real Hollywood scumbag, arrives in town to unload his properties. Soon he is lured down below as well. Slowly, Cregger reveals his mystery, and if the process is fresher than the revelation, that’s part of the fun.
Ultimately, despite feints otherwise, Barbarian has nothing particular to say about gentrification or urban decay, about the general awfulness of males past or present, about the haunted past of Reagan-era white flight. And why should it? There’s something admirable in the way that, despite its solid acting, sharp script, and realistic milieu, Barbarian refuses to elevate itself. Instead, it simply reinforces the most basic lesson of horror filmgoing: Don’t go down to the fuckin’ basement, dammit.
Hold Me Tight is a more subtle puzzle than Barbarian, with no spooky basement in sight, but again here the unfolding of the mystery is more significant than the ultimate discovery of what’s happening. Vicky Krieps is a woman named Clarisse, who apparently wakes up one morning, hops into her remarkably well-preserved late ‘70s AMC Pacer, and abandons her family. As she travels, she seems to imagine that their lives go on without her, and the film takes place entirely within her consciousness, with the borders of imagination and memory blurred by grief.
At first, Clarisse can’t leave this life behind. Like some ghostly conscience, she appears to advise her husband Marc (Arieh Worthalter) on his child-rearing and to tutor her daughter (Anne-Sophie Bowen-Chatet) as her piano skills develop. But distance develops as Clarisse begins a new life as the translator for a fishing boat. She gets wasted. She fools around with guys. She embarrasses herself. Her tether to her past life frays.
Slowly, the details of Clarisse’s estrangement are revealed. So slowly, in fact, and so subtly, you may wonder when the line was crossed and the revelation made, when what seemed like random clues became hard evidence. Director Mathieu Amalric establishes a diaphanous connection between the scenes we witness that holds the illusion together. And as Clarisse’s fantasy world unravels, she imagines her family’s happy future collapsing as they lash out against their past. The music even changes from romantic melodies of Chopin to the harsh atonalities of Schoenberg.
Holding the film together is Krieps’s remarkably self-contained performance. As in The Phantom Thread and Bergman Island, she’s a slight but powerful figure, her strength an internal resistance that’s not immediately evident. Even when she’s acting out, burying her face in packing ice or drunkenly embracing a fellow bar patron, she never simply performs grief or loss for our benefit. She’s as complicated an individual as you or me, her situation requiring no elaborate backstory, her behavior requiring a pat explanation. She simply shows who she is through how she acts. Like Kendrick Lamar says, “Everybody grieves different.”
Barbarian is now playing in area theaters; Hold Me Tight is now playing at The Main.