Thrillers have long been absorbed with the self-conscious anxiety of the modern male, his relationship to violence, and his precarious position in a changing world. Sam Peckinpah’s still-divisive Straw Dogs (1971) is perhaps the nastiest and most conspicuous vehicle for such themes, although they can be discerned in earlier, subtler form in classic film noirs such as They Drive by Night (1940) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Producer-turned-director Charles Dorfman’s feature debut, the slow-build thriller Barbarians, plainly has comparable ambitions. Like many first films, it is a cluttered and spasmodic affair, deploying flashy formal gestures and gratuitous plot points with the recklessness of an excitable kid. The film is on its firmest footing when it remains centered on a peevish British filmmaker named Adam (Iwan Rheon) and his pathological insecurity about his masculinity. As a protagonist, he’s thoroughly unlikeable, but his puerile neuroses at least provide Barbarians with some much-needed focus.
Adam is a marginally successful director of advertisements, currently attempting (and failing) to pen an original screenplay for his first feature film. His ambitions are being supported financially by his partner, Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a renowned sculptor who is presently producing a new series for an upscale home development in the British countryside. (Likely Scotland or North Ireland, although the film never specifies.) This job comes with a lavish fringe benefit: Eva and Adam are currently living in the model unit, a luxurious modern dwelling with the facade of a cozy country estate. They also have the right of first refusal on the house’s sale when Eva completes her first piece. “Contemporary design coupled with traditional materials,” boasts the development’s promotional video, in which alpha-male influencer and real-estate entrepreneur Lucas (Tom Cullen) gushes with faux-sincerity about his partnership with local property owners and the land’s connection to ancient pagan traditions.
The latter might prime viewers to expect a folk-horror twist, but Barbarians is a doggedly grounded thriller in the dinner-party-gone-awry subgenre. Adam and Eva are hosting Lucas and his model-slash-artist girlfriend, Chloe (Inès Spiridonov), for the weekend, ostensibly to celebrate Adam’s birthday and the unveiling of Eva’s first sculpture. Adam and Lucas were evidently acquainted prior to Eva’s residency, Adam being the one who introduced him to Chloe. The relationship between the two men is a decidedly lopsided one, however, predicated on Lucas’ ceaseless posturing and the thousand-cuts belittlement of Adam. (The actors’ contrasting heights pay dividends in this respect: Rheon is 5 ft 7 in, Cullen 6 ft 1 in.) Domineering and narcissistic, Lucas sneers at anything “soft” and prattles on about his brotastic lifestyle – crypto, MMA, and his sexual prowess feature prominently as topics. He repeatedly reminds Adam that he still owns the house and needles him with feminizing backhanded compliments, praising his host’s cooking by advising him not to “hang up his apron strings.”
Of course, Lucas’ behavior only aggravates Adam’s existing angst about his inadequacy, which is both profound and distracting. He is emasculated by his dependence on Eva’s income, and by the writer’s block that has stymied his screenplay progress. The day of the dinner party begins with an ill omen when he encounters an injured fox tangled in barbed wire during his morning run. Later, the dying animal wanders into the house and collapses on the kitchen floor, leaving Adam paralyzed with fearful indecision. It falls to a visiting local young farmer, Dan (Connor Swindells), to put the creature out of its misery while Eva looks on. The hot-faced shame that Adam feels at his own impotence in this moment is palpable. Real men do what is necessary and take life without remorse, or so Adam has been conditioned to believe.
This unsettling incident – and Adam’s later white lie to Lucas about it – hangs over the evening’s events. At first the atmosphere is convivial: Chloe expresses a longtime love of Eva’s work, and Lucas impishly reveals that he has brought an illicit substance to enliven the next night’s festivities. The lively dinner conversation flits from global events to sexual politics to gun violence. However, fissures soon begin to appear, owing to Adam’s simmering annoyance and Lucas’ perpetual need to be the biggest man in the room. Announcements are made, secrets are blurted out, and the viewer’s understanding of the foursome’s relationships is realigned.
Then: The already-tense evening is suddenly and incontrovertibly turned upside-down. Three mute intruders in coveralls and Halloween masks appear at the front door, force their way inside, and hold the group at gunpoint. Apart from vandalizing Eva and Adam’s home in a rather childish and performative manner, the anonymous trio’s attention is primarily focused on humiliating Lucas. It hardly constitutes a spoiler to reveal that Lucas’ shady land dealings have come back to haunt him, and even the most oblivious viewer will quickly deduce the identity of the intruders. No matter: Barbarians is not truly a mystery. It’s a survival thriller, the dinner-party revelations serving to complicate and heighten everything that unfolds once the couples find themselves on the business end of a double-barrel shotgun and a livestock bolt gun.
Dorfman cut his teeth as an associate producer on Best Picture winner The King’s Speech (2010) and has developed a dense behind-the-scenes résumé over the past few years, with credits ranging from tongue-in-cheek horror (Satanic Panic, VFW) to prestige indie drama (The Lost Daughter). As a director, he employs a gaggle of stylistic and structural gimmicks, including the promotional-video prelude, livestream smartphone footage, needless chapter intertitles, and a questionable, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash-forward. This grab-bag approach does Barbarians a disservice, weakening it rather than distinguishing it. One gets the impression of a first-time director who is pulling from his toolkit indiscriminately, without necessarily thinking about how and when those tools should be used.
That said, when Dorfman leans into an icier, more controlled aesthetic, Barbarians works. The striking staging of the dinner-table conversation – which features deliberately disorienting editing and confident flouting of the 180-degree rule – is one of the film’s most memorable sequences. The bloody, nocturnal action of the third act in particular is unfortunately dominated by familiar handheld camera work and obscuring digital murk. Yet Dorfman also finds plenty of genuinely striking moments throughout: ominous close-ups of Eva’s morbid reference art; the sculpture reveal captured from a counter-intuitive angle; lingering, mesmerizing shots of dust and steam; a repeated god’s-eye view of the house and surrounding property. There is some artful instinct there – it just needs refinement.
Dorfman scripted Barbarians himself, with a story assist from Statten Roeg, and it’s clear that he wanted to engage with several different provocative ideas, from rural gentrification to toxic masculinity to that old home-invasion chestnut, the repressed animal nature of the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, the screenplay never really develops any of these themes, addressing them only haltingly and half-heartedly. The film does little that hasn’t been done before with greater clarity. Ultimately, Barbarians works better as a character piece than as cultural commentary, owing in large part to Rheon’s marvelously pitiable performance. It's at once tetchy and cringing, miles from his role as self-amused sociopath Ramsay Bolton on Game of Thrones. Although Adam is an insistently unpleasant character, Rheon and Dorfman create an effective thriller-in-miniature out of his sheer haplessness. Every time he blunders yet another opportunity to demonstrate some spine (or general competence) – crumbling before the hostage-takers, as well as Lucas, Eva, and even Chloe – the viewer is primed to anticipate that his eventual eruption will be even more spectacular. Then again, maybe the most subversive storytelling choice would be a king who consistently cowers when his castle is besieged.
Barbarians will be available to rent from major online platforms on Apr. 1.