REVIEW: Barbarians (2021)

dir. Charles Dorfman

In an executive housing complex near a Druidic stone, two middle-class couples meet for a dinner party to eat, drink wine and – hopefully – sign papers which will secure one of the pairs owning their new home. But as the evening draws on, with New Age drumming nearby, relationships unfurl to reveal darkness within…

Dorfman’s debut is obsessed with male performance and artifice. Opening with an infomerical where property developer Lucas (Tom Cullen) extols the virtue of his new community, we soon see him rehearse various Insta-videos, feigning spontaneous emotions in order to gain social media likes. If he’s the swaggering alpha, Adam (Game of Thrones‘ Iwan Rheon) wears a different mask: furtive and insecure, he’s unable to deal with an injured fox encountered on his morning run. And so when – against all rational odds – the same animal turns up gory on his kitchen floor, it appears an omenic portent of private animalism which will be brought bleeding into this domestic space.

In contrast, Adam’s partner Eve (Catalina Sandino Moreno) – a Biblical reference citing the foundational crisis brewing in their relationship – is creative, confident, financially independent, and desired by other men. A sculptor working with wild media, the stability she represents only serves to highlight Adam’s lack, even as he wrestles with traditionally gendered expectations.

This invocation of human homes and gnarly nature – along with an increasingly tense social gathering – plays like a fusion of The Invitation and (particularly with its inter-titles and freaky fox) Antichrist. In this there are moments of macabre beauty, though a mid-point left-turn – if not entirely unexpected – draws from a whole different sub-genre. There’s other themes at play too – such as the gentrification of rural, work-class locales – but the film is at its best in the quieter moments, picking at the scabs of toxic masculinity and seeing what might ooze.

Although this is Dorfman’s first directorial feature, his impressive career as a producer – ranging from Oscar-favourite The King’s Speech to grimy genre fare VFW, Rabid and this year’s The Boys of County Hell – is reflected in the onscreen confidence. If there is some sag towards the end – too many threads taking too long to resolve – this can be forgiven in what is an assured and compelling deconstruction of 21st century manhood.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Tim Coleman

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