The Quick Explanation
Barbarian is a three chapter story that explores a particular aspect of the female experience—specifically, what it means to interact with men and the way in which men interact with women. The potential danger that embodies the early stages of these encounters is only further heightened by taking place in Detroit, a city that radiates uneasiness. With Tess on the heels of a breakup from a scary ex and her attempting to restart her life, it seems pointed that the story has her returned to a metaphoric womb by a mother figure. Her eventual re-emergence and survival and putting down of the mother figure is the kind of symbolism to make Freud cry with joy.
- Georgina Campbell – Tess Marshall
- Justin Long – AJ Gilbride
- Matthew Patrick Davis – The Mother
- Bill Skarsgård – Keith Toshko
- Richard Brake – Frank
- Jaymes Butler – Andre
- Zach Cregger – Writer/Director
Why is it called Barbarian?
The Dictionary.com definition of the term barbarian is “a person in a savage, primitive state; uncivilized person”. In the most literal of interpretations, it’s easy to see how this relates to the character of The Mother. The product of seclusion and decades of inbreeding, The Mother is in a primitive state and very savage. But the implications don’t end there.
In yesteryears, people used the word for those from less-advanced cultures. Imagine British aristocracy referring to Australian Aborigines. But that’s, thankfully, fallen out of favor due to how demeaning it is. Instead, the more contemporary use of barbarian is in response to someone who is acting particularly cruel or crude and thus setting themself apart from the standards of a group. For example, if a youth baseball coach got so mad at an umpire that they began screaming then eventually punched the umpire, that’s barbarian. Or if a teacher wanted to punish a student. It’s one thing to give them detention. It’s another if the teacher made them clean the chalkboard with their tongue. That’s a barbarous thing to do.
When we think of the word in that way, it goes beyond The Mother and includes AJ Gilbride. Gilbride is a brute. Selfish, clueless, carelessly vicious. How he responds to the charges of assault is gross. The language he uses. The tone. He does not fit with civil society. And we see that time and time again. When he discovers a creepy basement room, his first thought is to make more money off of it. When he has the chance to be a hero, he tries to sacrifice Tess for his own personal gain. When he had a co-star on a show…. He’s as much a barbarian as The Mother. Not to mention the sick guy who started this whole chain of events, Frank.
But there is another way of looking at it, if we go back to the word’s origins. Barbarian is a Greek word that was initially used to refer to all people who weren’t Greek. It was their equivalent of foreigner. But it eventually became a more pointed term aimed at non-Greek peoples who were combative and less refined. This use got picked up by the Romans who had expanded into northwestern Europe and began to do battle with the more tribal Celts and Germanics. The opening scene of the movie Gladiator is a good example of this. It shows a battle between Roman forces and a Germanic tribe, a stark contrast in presentation and tactics. Today, the “barbarian” warrior has become a pop culture archetype. Many a game has had a barbarian-like character or character class. Usually, they’re big, tanky warriors who are known for their power moreso than their technique. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian or the Marvel superhero Hulk.
With that in mind, the title, Barbarian may also apply to Tess. She’s a foreigner to Detroit, while everyone else in the movie either lives there or was born there. So in the most traditional sense of the word, she’s a barbarian. At the same time, by the end of the movie, Tess has been broken down to her baser instincts and is doing what she has to to survive. She’s transcended being “the girl at the AirBnB who is fearful of the man” and becomes this final girl who has fought her way to victory. I do think this might be a bit more of a reach, but it seemed worth mentioning, at least for the sake of consideration.
Themes and Meaning of Barbarian
Men and Women
Zach Cregger, the writer and director of Barbarian, was a guest on a podcast called The Boo Crew. There, he explained how he had been reading a book called The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence. One part of the book talked about the day-to-day red flags women encounter from men. This led to him writing a scene loaded with “harmless” red flags and a woman trying to decide what to do with the information. The exercise snowballed into a full-fledged feature.
When “red flags men give women” is the impetus for a movie, it makes sense the rest of the movie would continue to explore the dynamics between men and women. So you have Bill Skiasgård’s Keith Toshko, a good guy who still throws up red flags. He’s contrasted by Justin Long’s AJ Gilbride, a bad guy who throws up more obvious red flags. Followed by Richard Brake’s Frank, who is the ultimate monster. Through these three men, we witness different dynamics with women. Keith is the good guy who is unaware of how creepy he can be. AJ’s a bad guy who is obviously a bad guy. And Frank’s an evil person who is intelligent enough to hide it and get away with it.
So one of Barbarian’s primary themes is absolutely the behavior of men towards women. And I think it’s safe to say these three male archetypes represent guys found in the real world. Many men are Keith, without realizing it. Many are AJ, also without realizing it. And many are like Frank. They don’t take things as far as Frank does, but they’re vicious nonetheless. I’m sure every single woman who watches Barbarian could give a TED Talk about how it relates to experiences they’ve had. Which is truly sad and terrifying and one of the reasons this movie will resonate so strongly with people. Even men. They’ll see themselves in hopefully Keith and maybe realize how they can sometimes come off. They’ll know someone like AJ. And have someone they suspect could be a Frank.
Barbarian is an exaggeration of the day to day female experience. And the dread that’s part of that experience is only heightened by the film’s setting being Detroit. Detroit is not a place of sunshine and joy. A number of films have explored the downturn in the Motor City’s fortunes. It Follows comes to mind. RoboCop. The Crow. 8 Mile. Lost River. Don’t Breathe. They all lean into the decay of civilization and the sense of haunting that accompanies it. There’s an intensity associated with Detroit. In Barbarian, the neighborhood Tess stays in is full of houses that seem almost metaphoric for the men in the film. While they look a certain way on the outside, you have no idea what’s going on on the inside. And even once you’re “inside”, what may be hidden deeper.
Another example of the theme is the scene were Tess tries to get the male police officers to help her. But the officers doubt her credibility and leave her. That’s sadly all too real. Every day, there are reports of women who called the police on abusive partners, received zero assistance, then suffered further because the system failed them.
With all that said, I can imagine there are people reading this, thinking “Chris, how can you put all the blame on men when The Mother is the villain?” That’s because The Mother is a byproduct of Frank’s sins. The result of several generations of Frank’s inbreeding. The Mother is another victim. Despite how destructive she is, we do see there’s a desperate desire to care for someone. And obviously not all men in this film are bad. Keith seems like he’s a good person. And Andre, the homeless man, really does try and help Tess. And the cops, while skeptical of Tess, do at least respond to her call and follow her back to her vehicle. AJ’s accountant has enough of a moral compass to fire AJ as a client. So this isn’t something where the movie is simply saying “men are bad”. It’s more along the lines of The Girl WIth The Dragon Tattoo and wanting to explore the extremes and point out that “Yes, men like this do exist. Doesn’t mean they’re all bad or the entire problem. But we should be aware of this and what it means for others, especially women.”
There seems to be a sub-theme about the impact parents have on their kids. The Mother is the result of Frank’s actions. And AJ has a phone call with his mom where it’s clear AJ’s dad hates AJ and has probably always been hard on AJ. I would argue the only reason that conversation is in the movie is to subtextually say that a lack of paternal affection is part of the reason AJ turned into such a POS. Then, of course, you have Tess and The Mother, with Tess being infantilized by her captivity. She’s then re-raised by The Mother, metaphorically speaking, and comes away from the experience forever changed.
I think you could probably extend this idea of generational impact to Detroit, as we see the neighborhood in the 80s and how nice it looked compared to the present day. That might be nothing more than an inherently honest part of having a flashback to that time and shouldn’t be something we read into (and I can imagine there’s more than one person who thinks that). But I think Detroit is presented as enough of a character that contrasting the “then” vs “now” aspect of it feels relevant. As Detroit is, like AJ and The Mother, a byproduct of the people responsible for its growth.
The end of Barbarian
Having escaped from the house, Tess and AJ run into Andre, a homeless man who lives in the neighborhood. He had attempted to help Tess earlier but she thought he was someone with bad intentions so ran from him. Andre brings the two to his camp by the water tower, saying that The Mother won’t follow them there. AJ seems to have a breakthrough about being a bad person and like he might actually change for the better. After Tess eventually asks why they’re safe at the water tower, Andre reveals there’s no real reason other than The Mother has never bothered him there. Of course, The Mother immediately appears and rips Andre apart.
AJ and Tess panic and escape to the top of the water tower. They’re left with no escape. But AJ realizes The Mother is more interested in Tess than him, so he throws Tess from the tower. As he thought, The Mother launches herself after Tess. AJ makes his way down. There, he finds Tess still alive and tries to apologize. His excuses are pitiful and reveal just how horrible of a person he is. The Mother rises up and Blade Runner’s his eyes then splits his dome. Alone with an injured Tess, The Mother becomes incredibly caring. She’s concerned for Tess’ wounds and wants to bring Tess home to nurse her. But Tess has a pistol and puts it to The Mother’s head. They share a beat. The Mother touches Tess’s forehead, as if giving permission. Then Tess pulls the trigger.
With AJ, you have this nice, full circle moment. His character arc begins with the accusations from his co-star against him and our initial skepticism of whether or not he did what she said. That skepticism is quickly dispelled after spending just a few minutes with the character. But the water tower moment with Tess and his subsequent attempts to make excuses and even blame her is exactly what we saw him do with his co-star. It solidifies, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he did what she said and will continue to hurt people and make excuses. The seeming moment of character growth he had at the camp went right out the window. He is who he is. No remorse. No growth.
That dovetails nicely with The Mother, as The Mother is the result of another awful man’s actions. That means there’s something thematically powerful about her defense of Tess and destruction of AJ. Almost as if she’s getting revenge for all women who have been wronged by the AJs and Franks of the world.
Which then dovetails with Tess. Tess is at this crossroad in her life. After ending a bad relationship, she wants to begin anew. The trip to Detroit for a job interview was supposed to be a step in that direction. You can view the events of the movie as symbolic for the process of that rebirth. Her descent into the tunnels is a return to the womb. And the defeat of The Mother is her metamorphosis.
Put another way, you can view The Mother and AJ as embodying Tess’s baggage. AJ represents the ex. And The Mother represents how Tess felt by the end of the relationship. So when The Mother takes out AJ, then Tess takes out The Mother, it’s like this internal purification that means she’s now free to move ahead in her life, renewed and empowered. Both literally and metaphorically.
That might seem like a reach to some people but it’s really the classic arc of the “final girl” trope in horror. The main female hero begins the story in a state of innocence and normalcy, goes through hell, destroys the monster, and is reborn. She evolves from damsel in distress to badass. Laurie Strode in Halloween is an easy example. Or Sidney Prescott in Scream. Or Mia Allen from the 2012 Evil Dead remake. Tess has a similar arc. Most of the time, the monster has some symbolic meaning, either relating to the hero or society.
What happened to the woman in the yellow dress?
In the flashback to the 80s, we see a younger Frank getting supplies for a home birth. Before heading home, a woman in a yellow dress catches his eye. Being the creepy jerk that he is, Frank follows the woman home, pretends to be a utilities employee, does something in her bathroom, then leaves. We don’t see her again.
If it wasn’t clear what happened, Frank unlocked the woman’s bathroom window. While weren’t not shown him returning and abducting, AJ does pick up the exact same yellow dress from a table in Frank’s room. The point of the woman in yellow is really just to show how Frank operated. She was one of many takings and it’s likely he did the same thing each time. So seeing one example answers a lot of questions. But the film doesn’t linger on it because it’s more backstory and tying up loose ends than completely necessary to the present-day events.
If you have more questions or thoughts, leave a comment! I’ll respond. Thanks for reading!
The trailer shows the movie as a true horror but I’ve seen defense of the movie as a campy spoof on horror. While your explanation is appropriate it doesn’t answer the question here – what was the intent with the horror? The audience when I attended laughed at moments I would have thought were supposed to be “scary.” Ex: the death of Andre. And while you show the character of Tess to be somewhat heroic, you have to also see her as an absolute idiot. When she woke on day 2 and saw the neighborhood – why would she ever go back? Plus sharing a house with a complete stranger? Come on!! Tess loses all credibility with these moves as the girl who fought against her distrust of men and fought to survive.
Hey Kate! I think the movie’s taking a multi-faceted look at the male-female dynamic. When it’s from Tess’s perspective, the tone is more horror/tension. When it’s from AJ’s perspective, there’s an absurd entitlement and egoism. When they’re together, it blends. About sharing the house, I think the movie takes some time to show why she decided to stay. She’s not going to stay, but can’t find a hotel. She’s going to stay in her car, but it’s a bad neighborhood. Bad weather. Has an important job interview in the morning. Plus, he’s saying all the right things. Seems relatively normal. Personally, I one time had a late connection in Chicago and we missed the red eye home. I didn’t have a phone charger or anything and my phone had died. A number of us started talking about what to do. I ended up splitting a hotel room with this random dude who was about my age, seemed normal, and had a charger. Went to Steak & Shake, talked, went to bed, woke up, back to the airport. It definitely had moments where I was like, “Am I going to get killed?” But there was never a red flag. Nothing problematic. So I don’t think it’s too unbelievable. And then I think she went back because she liked Keith. He was involved in a niche interest she was really passionate about. So as awkward as the beginning of things were, she was looking forward to spending more time with him. I think if he was just a normal guy, it would be stupid. But with him being part of the underground jazz world and being kind of a celebrity to her, I think it makes a bit more sense.
What’s the point of the Jane Eyre paperback in Keith’s suitcase? It was shown twice…
Thanks for the question, Jill! Jane Eyre is a very important feminist story. Jane spends a lot of time in subjugation. First in the orphanage, then at boarding school. She has to overcome a lot before her life transforms for the better. You can take that in a variety of ways. Like, it could be a subtle way of showing that Keith’s actually really thoughtful and considerate of women. Or it could be drawing a connection between Tess and Jane. Or even The Mother and Jane. Or kind of all of the above. I don’t think the book being there changes any major reading of the film. But it does reinforce Barbarian as a feminist film.
In the last moments of the film, a thought occurred to me. Could “the Mother” be a stand-in for “Woke America.” Many like to think that they are helping women who are victims, but it many ways they are keeping them in victim status (one way is by labelling them as victims). Some will say “woke” people are more interesting in feeling good about themselves, feeling like they are actually helping.
I know this might be a completely misguided reading, but I can’t shake it.
Yo, Chris! So I think all works have a basic intended reading and then are completely open to applied readings. For example, the book The Great Gatsby was very much about 1920s America and the economics of that time. That’s the basic intended reading. But someone could do an applied reading where they analyze Great Gatsby through the lends of 21st century political paradigms. What you’re saying sounds more to me like an applied reading than something I think is intended. But it’s very true the mother does want to keep Tess in this reduced state. But Cregger wrote the film specifically with the idea of the ways in which men give off red flags toward women and are a danger to women. So I think the Mother character’s intended reading has more to do with what Frank did to her.