This month’s movie reviews of Barbarian, I Came By and Do Revenge.
It’s been a gloomy summer in terms of new films, but some recent releases, both in theaters and on Netflix, have left me with some hope for the fall. The most pleasant (and horrific) surprise was Barbarian, from director/writer Zach Cregger. Right now it’s only in theaters, and it succeeds both as a clever and engrossing horror film and as a barbed social commentary. The film begins on your customary dark and stormy night in a rundown neighborhood in Michigan (you don’t see how really rundown it is till the sun comes up). Our heroine Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at the Airbnb she has rented, only to find another tenant there (Bill Skarsgard from It) with an equally valid claim. After some trepidation on the part of both, Tess stays the night. This first sequence is well-played (and paced) as the two travelers circle around each other and attempt to engage, while wary of each other’s intentions. In addition, there are the “house noises” and quick movements that the audience is privy to and the characters are not. Needless to say, the house contains its share of secrets and ever a fateful and harrowing confrontation, a cheerful Justin Long enters the scene as AJ, a sitcom actor at the top of the world—until he learns that he has been accused of rape, his contracts have been canceled, and in order to get some liquidity back into his life he has to sell off a property in, you guessed it…Michigan. Without revealing much (I hope), the two storylines merge quite effectively with a fair share of scares, shocks and suspenseful moments.
As a horror film alone, the movie delivers the goods, even as some of the secrets become unearthed. One flaw of this type of film is that once the secret is out there, the film becomes less mysterious and compelling—but here, Barbarian retains its punch. Part of this is because of the conception and delineation of the central characters. Bill Skarsgard invests his character with just enough nuance to make you wonder if he isn’t a threat to the wary Tess. Georgina Campbell’s Tess is also well-developed; Campbell nicely portrays Tess’ intelligence, her inner confusion, her indignation at not being believed, her awareness that she’s not believed because of “who she is,” and her essential goodness. Justin Long is perhaps the real revelation; normally an actor who plays it “sincere,” we see AJ at first as the perceived victim. Then as we see AJ’s responses, his attempts at equivocation, his desire to hush things up, it becomes less clear whether he’ll be a savior or another predator. The film isn’t perfect, and I did feel a bit of a letdown (logical, emotional) in the wake of a development late in the third act. But overall, I think you’ll have some fun with Barbarian, while rethinking what to do about that unfinished basement…
Speaking of basements and big houses with secrets, our favorite lord of the manor, Hugh Bonneville, plays a completely different kind of squire in I Came By, directed by Babak Anvari with a script by Anvari and Namsi Khan. Beloved by all, Bonneville’s Hector Blake is a retired judge and respected member of the English upper classes who becomes the target of some graffiti artists/activists who have been targeting the upper crust and leaving “I CAME BY” on their walls. When the most “active” of them, Toby, shows up one night to leave the message…he doesn’t quite make it out, which leaves Toby’s friend and fellow artist (and illegal immigrant) Jay (Percelle Ascott) a little concerned. Toby’s Mom (Kelly MacDonald) is also worried and when the two finally get together, one thinks justice will be done. But the judge has friends, and a lofty position among the politicians and the police, and the inability to convince the police that the judge has “a secret” provides room for some more disturbing developments.
Like Barbarian, I Came By shifts its focus among the central figures. Luckily, the grating Toby (George MacKay) has less of a presence as the film continues, leaving the narrative to shift the focus among Jay (torn between a desire to help and a need to stay “anonymous”), Mom’s efforts to find her son and expose the judge—and the lengths the judge will go to protect his home. The tension is sustained throughout, and the actors acquit themselves well, especially Bonneville, playing partly against type as the cultured—and obsessive judge. You can see I Came By on Netflix, and it’s worth the visit.Also on Netflix is Do Revenge, a bright takeoff on Strangers on a Train updated to Rosehill High, a school for the (very) privileged in Miami. Mainly set in a youthful academic environment that makes Mean Girls seem positively angelic, Do Revenge adapts the “you do my murder, I’ll do yours” scenario as the basis for two high school seniors who want revenge against those who humiliated them. In the case of Drea (Camila Mendes), she was part of the “in crowd” until a certain kind of video was posted, and she has her eyes set on making her ex-boyfriend/alleged tormentor Max pay. In Eleanor’s (Maya Hawke) case, she is a new student at Rosehill who wants her revenge after a false rumor (sexual in nature) has been spread about her by a student named Carissa. Murder is not involved here, but lifelong humiliation is the intended effect—yet the film maintains a light and witty tone, especially in the first half. The twists come later on, as the avengers start to have second thoughts, and the film plays with our perceptions of Drea, Eleanor, their friends, and especially Max (Austin Abrams) There is a good deal of wit, energy, some pointed commentary about sexual and academic roles, and a bit of suspense—and finally a not undeserved helping of “heart.” Lest we forget, Sarah Michele Gellar makes a welcome return to the screen as the principal (conjuring up memories of her lethal turn as the youthful manipulator in Cruel Intentions.)