When watching Barbarians, you wouldn’t instantly believe that this is a first-time feature, Charles Dorfman has crafted an ingeniously tangled plot and created a film that presents as one thing before morphing into something more. Its clever construction points to someone who has been behind the camera for years, not someone sitting in the seat for the first time. Dorfman has clearly used his time as a producer to work closely with directors and writers, absorbing their skills like a sponge, which has enabled him to come out of the blocks running.
Told in chapters, Barbarians revolves around the Birthday dinner party of famed director, Adam (Iwan Rheon). Adam and his girlfriend Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno) reside in the first home of a proposed development of dream houses that allows young professionals the opportunity to reconnect with nature. To celebrate his special day, Adam’s friend and property developer, Lucas (Tom Cullen), along with his girlfriend Chloe (Inès Spiridonov) come round for dinner. As the meal develops tensions, revelations come to the surface, and emotions rise, an unexpected interruption throws everything into turmoil. The use of chapters seems to be a style that is coming back into trend with a slew of this year’s festival crop opting to tell their story in this format. Whilst their use in some films feel strange, in Barbarians they make perfect sense. They exemplify how to use chapters in a film well, and allow the viewing of the film to take on the same sensation as reading a novel. Each title card teases what is to come, arousing curiosity and urging the audience to keep watching. It’s a smart, slick, and stylish technique utilised perfectly.
Complimenting the story structure are some nifty characters and zippy dialogue. With so few characters to interact with, it is important that those that are there feel necessary. All four of our core cast are integral to the success of Barbarians. Every other aspect has been moulded around these characters and the interactions and dynamics between all of them is richly complex. Dorfman doesn’t spoon-feed lots of exposition to the audience, opting to leave several gaps in information, mainly around the relationships, allowing the viewer to interpret and fill the blanks in themselves. The script is pure naturalistic fire, the words effortlessly falling out of the mouths of the talented cast. Nailing realistic conversations is always a tough thing to pull off, but Dorfman demonstrates a flair for the written word.
The complexity of these characters requires a talented cast and each actor brings their A-game. Iwan Rheon is most famous for his turn as the devious and demented Ramsey Bolton in Game of Thrones and yet Adam is a much meeker person. He is easily emasculated by those around him and the quiet seething frustration he feels slowly intensifies as the evening wears on. It’s a far more restrained performance from Rheon, but one that promises a long and varied career. Tom Cullen’s Lucas is the polar opposite of Adam – he’s loud, brash, and super confident, the epitome of the stereotypical alpha male. His constant belittling of Adam, although mean, is a clear powerplay for dominance. As Chloe, Inès Spiridonov has less work to do, but the character is a vessel for some of the peak moments of drama. The most interesting interaction however, is between Adam and Eva. Initially they present as the ultimate power couple; a director and sculptor, both renowned within their respective fields, living in the perfect house, but fractures make themselves quickly known. The dynamic actually feels more like mother and son, such as Eva cleaning his cheek with her hand and telling him to apologise to his guests. It’s a very strange relationship, but is just one of the fascinating aspects of Barbarians.
The opening two-thirds, which focus mainly on the dinner, are where Barbarians’ strengths lie. Once events move beyond the dessert course, dialogue becomes more sparse and the narrative completely changes. Dorfman manages to keep the wheels on, but there are some wobbles during the final act. The good far outweighs these little blips and Dorfman’s directorial debut will excite those with a thirst for fiendishly complex content. A dynamite script, some clever plot devices, and a stellar cast, combine to create a thrilling debut feature.
This review was first published on THN.