Charles Dorfman’s Barbarians is burned by its missed opportunities. The Stonehenge Lite weirdness and cultish overtones introduced before the film’s “dinner party from Hell” tease something more robust than what transpires. It’s never intensely committed to genre like Lee Haven Jones’ grotesque banquet The Feast, or as thrilling a home invasion as Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers. Clean and crisp to look at, Barbarians simply isn’t that fascinating a tale of mealtime madness and one that never delivers intensely enough on its titular barbarism.
Iwan Rheon stars as London director Adam, who trades a prosperous metropolitan routine for partner Eva’s (Catalina Sandino Moreno) idyllic countryside fantasy. On the night of Adam’s birthday, land developer Lucas (Tom Cullen) and his actress girlfriend Chloe (Inès Spiridonov) arrive for a casual celebration dinner. Lucas intends to reveal if Eva and Adam will be inking their modern-rustic dream home (well, Eva’s dream home), but only after the last course. Conversational banter fills the empty space, Lucas projects his alpha machismo, the couples begin to disagree ever so cordially—then three masked, armed intruders break in.
Barbarians is rooted in betrayal, starting with Lucas’ shady acquisition of property located near a worshiped natural tower dubbed the Gateway Stone. Lucas briefly visits the sacred statue to record a social media video, where he’s chased away by perturbed locals seeming to pray around the object’s base. There’s a sense the Stone might play a more prominent role in the night’s dangers beyond Lucas’ branding of his luxury homes with “Gateway,” but Dorfman never revisits it. Recurring fox imagery foreshadows some themes—whether you believe their visitations signify a personal gain or represent tricksters—but otherwise, the folklore is merely frontloaded despite narrative flickers of eccentric faiths.
On top of that disappointment, there’s something so delicious about dinner party delinquency that Barbarians misses. Secrets become a traded currency, whether that’s Chloe’s pregnancy, Adam’s unfulfillment, details behind the sudden death of Lucas’ prior business partner—but there’s a certain hateable quality to everyone that stifles suspense. Dorfman intends to bring his uncivilized diners to the brink just before their uninvited, animal-faced guests burst in, waving a shotgun. Alas, their irritating flaws are instead ugly character blemishes. Survival and empathy must both be earned; these characters are so far behind, we’re left seeking reasons why we should feel tension. There’d be no effusive reaction if Dorfman killed the lot of them upon his criminals’ entry.
Charlie Herranz’s cinematography elevates Barbarians through aerial frames of Lucas’ utopia-in-progress and tighter tabletop standoffs as the couples slurp a soupy appetizer. The visual presence of Barbarians is potent as Adam confronts wounded foxes or the party crashers destroy Adam and Eva’s maybe-to-be residence like untrained beasts. Its shot selection is enjoyably specific as—for example—Eva unveils the commissioned sculpture she’s shaped for Lucas’ Gateway courtyard centerpiece, while the camera holds on everyone’s facial reactions like it’s from the artwork’s point of view. Dorfman’s eye for presentation is stronger than his collaborative screenplay (story credit going to Statten Roeg) which, at minimum, paints the ordeal as picturesquely palatable.
Similarly, its performances understand the intricacies of nervous liars and of decency teetering on a razor’s edge, but are indebted to the script’s indecency. Lucas means to puff his chest in brash displays, just like Adam’s beta anxiousness defines his cowardly bows to Eva. Everyone’s silent glances carry Barbarians until the abrupt attack—when its dynamics change for the frantic once electrical tape secures hostages to chairs. Rheon and Moreno share darkly insecure exchanges as Adam attempts to reclaim his decisive power but repeatedly fails, breaking away from the otherwise familiar all-tied-up scenario. Even here, points are awarded for Cullen’s bad trip because, yes, Lucas gets drugged and becomes an intoxicated madman for a momentary bonus.
I’m torn on Barbarians, because while the film displays sharpened technical filmmaking chops, it’s an unbalanced invasion thriller caught between its subgenre intentions. Dorfman makes something inconsolably bleak, but also attempts conflicting outbursts of hope. Lore is introduced, only for the most basic trespasser’s gameplay to overtake it. Barbarians just never sharpens its fangs despite embracing so much darkness, unwrapping an unremarkable territorial thriller with misleading labels on the package.
Director: Charles Dorfman
Writer: Charles Dorfman, Statten Roeg
Starring: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Tom Cullen, Iwan Rheon
Release Date: April 1, 2022
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.