Dinner parties always invite a recipe for disaster in horror. Or rather, dinner table etiquette tends to breed tension as social fears get exaggerated or exploited. Barbarians uses a cozy birthday dinner to mount social anxieties and pressures, but its slow simmer never quite reaches a boiling point thanks to a third act that pulls its punches.
A couple, Adam (Iwan Rheon) and Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno), wake up on Adam’s birthday feeling great about their idyllic life and the opportunity to finalize the purchase of their dream home. Property developer and influencer Lucas (Tom Cullen) arrives with actress girlfriend Chloe (Inès Spiridonov) to celebrate and close the deal. Their civilized gathering devolves, and chaos ensues. The more the beverages flow, the more secrets unravel and expose simmering resentment.
Writer/Director Charles Dorfman’s feature debut sets up the setting and its central players with a methodical purpose. The heavy-handedly named Adam and Eva, who are trying to maintain their paradise, see Adam as the weaker of the pair. Adam passes by an injured fox on a morning run and can’t bring himself to help or hurt it, even when it mysteriously finds its way into his house. It’s up to Eva, the more assertive of the two, and local help to handle it. That dynamic gets underscored with the arrival of the alpha male-like Lucas. Influencer culture, masculinity, betrayals, and more get served throughout 24-hours, though it never pushes the envelope enough to earn its title.
Barbarians is a little too measured and restrained; betrayals among friends hit harder than the sharp detour into home invasion horror with a dabbling of folk horror. Dorfman adheres too closely to the imagery we’ve seen before, and the simplified story doesn’t contribute anything new to the conversation. It doesn’t help that Dorfman wants us to root against Adam and Lucas, especially Lucas. Both are two halves of the same coin, selfish beings beneath charismatic facades. Rheon ensures the lines of morality are blurred and harder to detect in Adam.
Dorfman’s slow-burn offers scenic set pieces and fascinating character work, focusing more on subtle satire than horror. It results in a third act that isn’t intense enough to satisfy. Part of that feels intentional; what transpires feels apropos of the theme and its characters. The dynamics and conflict-heavy relationships between the core four take up so much precedence that how their mere presence has ruffled the locals’ feathers fall to the background also underscores the finale’s failure to register as it should fully.
Playing the horror too safe after a lengthy, plodding act two gets further diminished by cat and mouse sequences obscured by darkness and frenzied camera work. Built-up tension dissipates when it’s difficult to see the long-awaited explosion of violence. Adam, Eva, Lucas, and Chloe may fascinate in their choices, but finding rooting interest among them can be tricky.
The latest dinner party from hell scenario lobs scathing critiques at various subjects, from influencer culture to privilege to displacement and beyond. Framing it almost entirely through its flawed and oft frustrating characters means some of those critiques get undeveloped and renders the horror as impotent as one of its leads.
Barbarians releases in theaters and on VOD on April 1, 2022.