Culture Representation: Taking place in Surrey, England, the horror film film “Barbarians” features a cast of nearly all-white characters (with one Latina) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: Four people who are gathered for a dinner party have their party interrupted by home invaders.
Culture Audience: “Barbarians” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching an unimaginative and dull horror movie that has too many boring conversations and not enough scares.
“Barbarians” is being marketed as a horror movie about a home invasion. It’s actually a tedious 90-minute movie about an annoying dinner party, with the formulaic home invasion happening only in the last 30 minutes. There’s no good excuse for why the movie drags on and on in showing nothing but the dinner party hosts and their relationship issues before and during this dreadfully boring dinner party. It all just comes down to a horror movie being lazy and unimaginative.
Written and directed by Charles Dorfman, “Barbarians” (which takes place during a 24-hour period in Surrey, England) wastes a lot of time showing the movie’s central couple’s relationship conflicts and some background about the home that they have recently purchased. Adam Davies (played by Iwan Rheon) is a movie director who’s frustrated because his career has stalled. His partner Eva Velasquez (played by Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a world-renowned artist whose specialty is making large sculptures. Adam and Eva, who are both in their late 30s to early 40s, are not married and have been together for an untold number of years.
Adam and Eva have recently moved into a housing property development called The Gateway, which has been designed to be a progressive community of homes for like-minded creative people and other “hipsters.” A massive stone sculpture made by Eva is at the center of the property. It’s an avant-garde eyesore that’s being touted as “bespoke sculpture.”
Real-estate developer Lucas Hunt (played by Tom Cullen) has sold Adam and Eva a house in The Gateway. Lucas hopes to sell more housing units, so he has made a promotional video that he has posted on the Internet. The opening scene of “Barbarians” is a clip from this slick promotional video, where Lucas has the tone of an infomercial hack.
In this video, Lucas talks about how The Gateway got its name from a famous stone on the land called Gaeta (which is Gaelic for “gateway”), which has “attracted people far and wide with its mystery, its magic, its power. They come to celebrate the solstice as a way of marking the transition from one season to another.” Eva’s sculpture adorning the property is meant to resemble the Gaeta stone. Lucas mentions that the land where The Gateway is located had been owned for generations by a family with the last name Wickes.
Lucas says in the video that he worked out a deal with the Wickes family to sell the property to him, by assuring the family that for this land “steeped in history,” he would be “respecting its past to create something truly special.” As if to prove that he had the Wickes family’s blessing, the video includes Lucas posing for a photo with family patriarch Alan Wickes (played by Kevin Ryan) and Alan’s three sons: John (played by Will Kemp), Dan (played by Connor Swindells) and Neil (played by Tommy McDonnell). Everyone is smiling and seeming to be on good terms with other.
There’s a pointless part of the movie about a wounded fox that Adam finds outside on the property, because the fox got caught in some fence wire. When Adam approaches the fox to try to help it, the fox snarls and snaps at him, so Adam backs off. Later, the fox mysteriously shows up on the kitchen floor in Adam and Eva’s house.
Dan Wickes just happens to be there, and he covers the wounded fox with a jacket and kills it with no hesitation. The killing of this fox really has no bearing on the story, except to show that Dan can get violent (even in a “mercy killing” of an animal), and Adam feels emasculated in his own home because Dan acted in a “macho” way to kill the fox. Adam also thinks that Dan flirts inappropriately with Eva, but she denies it.
Adam’s birthday happens around the same time that he and Eva have moved into their new home, so Adam and Eva are throwing a small dinner party to celebrate. Their only guests at this party are Lucas and his actress girlfriend Chloe (played by Inès Spiridonov), who has been in a relationship with Lucas for an unnamed period of time. “Barbarians” (which is writer/director Dorfman’s feature-film directorial debut) is a poorly made movie that skips over a lot of character development. All four of these characters come across very shallow and often self-absorbed, with unremarkable acting from all of the movie’s cast members.
The main thing that viewers will learn about Adam and Eva before this dinner party happens is that Eva wants to start a family with Adam, who is more reluctant about the idea of being a parent at this point in his life. Adam seems to want to wait until he has a more stable income. Eva is frustrated by his hesitation, so she tells Adam that if he’s not ready to have a family with her, he needs to be up front and tell her. Adam says he’s sorry and tells Eva that he’s committed to her and will go with what she wants.
The dinner party is just more irksome relationship drama, with Adam and Lucas acting like immature rivals. Adam feels like an insecure “beta male” because he thinks “alpha male” Lucas is trying to make flirtatious moves on Eva. That seems to be a pattern of jealousy that Adam has when another man is interacting with Eva. Lucas thinks Adam is kind of a wimp. Lucas tells Adam to hit Lucas. Adam doesn’t punch Lucas but slaps him instead, so Lucas calls Adam a “pussy.”
And it should come as no surprise that some secrets, lies and betrayals are revealed during this dinner party. The identities of the home invaders (who war animal skull masks) and the reason for the home invasion are so obvious, this movie has no real suspense or mystery. By the time the horribly staged home invasion happens during the dinner party, viewers will feel like “Barbarians” invited people to a horror movie, but instead offered a time-wasting void of monotonous and forgettable drivel.
IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Barbarians” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 1, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Sudbury, Ontario, in 2012, the drama “Castle in the Ground” has a nearly all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A 19-year-old straight-laced guy becomes addicted to opioids after getting involved with a female opioid addict and her problems with drug dealers and other criminals.
Culture Audience: “Castle in the Ground” will appeal primarily to people who like watching grim stories about drug addiction.
With numerous documentaries and scripted movies being made about drug addiction, there really isn’t a lot of mystery in showing how a seemingly straight-laced, middle-class young person can go from having a promising future to being a drug addict. “Castle in the Ground” (written and directed by Joey Klein) is not an innovative or particularly well-paced film, but a nuanced performance by Alex Wolff makes the movie worth a look for people who are interested in seeing yet another “wasted youth” story.
“Castle in the Ground” begins with 19-year-old Henry Fine (played by Wolff) going through the ritual of crushing a prescribed opioid pill and putting it in food that he serves to his bed-ridden mother Rebecca Fine (played by Neve Campbell), who has an illness that’s not explicitly stated but it’s implied to be cancer. Henry and his single mother (who are the only people living in their apartment in the Canadian city of Sudbury) are so close that he often sleeps in the same bed with her to be a comforting presence. (Henry’s father is neither seen nor mentioned in the film.)
Henry has chosen to delay going to college until his mother “gets well.” And he sincerely believes that she will recover from her illness. But there are signs that he’s also fearing the worst, because he’s begun praying in Hebrew. His mother somewhat teases Henry that she hasn’t seen him openly pray in years.
After a doctor’s appointment, Rebecca tells Henry the bad news that her health situation has gone through another “relapse,” and that they have to prepare for every possible outcome, including her death. He is in complete denial and doesn’t even want to think about his mother dying. Henry gets very upset when she tells him that after her death, she wants Henry to live with his Uncle Yosef and his wife, and the arrangements have already been made.
Meanwhile, a new neighbor has moved in directly across the hall from Henry and Rebecca. Details about the new neighbor are revealed in bits and pieces, as Henry sometimes looks through his apartment’s peephole to observe what’s going on at the apartment across from his. His neighbor (played by Imogen Poots) is a woman who’s about 10 years older than he is, and she likes to play music loud enough that Henry and his mother can hear it in their apartment. She also has a few men visiting her, whom she greets warmly when she answers the door.
One evening, while Henry is having dinner with his mother, his girlfriend Rachel (played by Star Slade) texts him. His mother asks Henry to tell Rachel that she’s interrupting their dinner. But because he wants to talk to Rachel, he takes the conversation with her out in the apartment hallway.
While Henry is on the phone with Rachel, a young man named Stevie (played by Kiowa Gordon) stops by the neighbor’s apartment and introduces himself. Stevie asks if Henry is someone named Polo Boy. Henry says no and tells him that his name is Henry. Before Stevie goes into the apartment, Henry politely asks Stevie to tell the friend who lives there to turn down the music.
Henry then meets up with Rachel for a date, which they spend at an arcade. When he gets home, he hears loud music again from the neighbor’s apartment, so he looks through the peephole and sees something bizarre: A tall man, wearing a face mask of a baby, is knocking on the door.
When the door is opened, the man barges in, and there’s the distinct sound of a woman’s scream and a physical fight. It sounds like a crime in progress, but it could also a prank, so Henry doesn’t call 911 or check to see if the neighbor is in danger or not. It’s revealed later in the movie what that incident was all about.
The next day, Henry is at the pharmacy to pick up some medication for his mother. He sees the mystery neighbor woman arguing with the pharmacist, who has refused to fill a prescription for her and threatens to call the police. The neighbor says that her phone is broken and angrily accuses the pharmacist of being rude and unfairly “profiling” her. It’s an obvious sign that the woman has a drug problem and is trying to fill a fraudulent prescription.
After this heated exchange, the neighbor walks away in a huff, while Henry gets the medication for his mother. As he’s about to leave, he sees the neighbor stealing candy from one of the pharmacy shelves. Henry introduces himself and asks her if she’s doing all right because he heard a scuffle in her apartment the night before.
She tells Henry that what he heard was no big deal, and she introduces herself as Ana. She’s also very agitated, and complains to Henry that pharmacies “hook you … and then fuck up your life.” And if it weren’t obvious enough that she’s a desperate junkie, Ana then asks Henry if she could borrow $40. When he tells her that he has no cash with him, she asks to borrow $20. He tells her the same answer.
Ana asks Henry what he was doing at the pharmacy, and he tells her that he was picking up allergy medication for his sick mother. The look on her face tells viewers that she knows Henry is probably lying, and his access to pain medication might be useful to her. Henry mentions that Ana sometimes plays music too loud, and he nicely asks her if she could turn down the music since his mother is sick.
Ana agrees, but then says since she’ll do that favor for him, she needs a favor from Henry. Ana asks Henry if she could borrow his cell phone and if he could give her a ride to somewhere she needs to go. Although Henry has some initial reservations about this obviously shady person, he seems fascinated and somewhat attracted to Ana, so he says yes to her requests.
When Ana is on the phone, she makes angry calls that indicate she’s probably trying to get in touch with someone who can give her drugs. Ana and Henry drive to an abandoned house, and when he gets tired of waiting for her, he goes into the house to see what’s going on. Henry tells Ana that he has to go, but she begs him to give her a few more minutes.
She then calls her doctor to refill her Oxy prescription, since she’s out of methadone. The doctor refuses. So now that it’s been made clear that Ana is a drug addict, Henry has the choice to avoid her or get involved with her. It’s pretty obvious from the way she easily manipulated him what his choice will eventually be.
Shortly after Henry and Ana meet for the first time at the pharmacy, tragedy strikes: Henry’s mother dies in a way that won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that he blames himself for her death. Henry is understandably grief-stricken and depressed. He also breaks up with his girlfriend Rachel, since she will be going away to college.
Alone and despondent, Henry is staying in the apartment with no visible means of income. However, viewers can assume that he might have gotten an inheritance from his mother, because Henry refuses an offer from his Uncle Yosef (played by Joseph Ziegler) to live with him and his wife.
When Henry goes through his mother’s belongings, he inevitably sees her bottles of medication. He continues the ritual of crushing the pills, but this time, he’s the one taking the drugs. And when he goes over to visit Ana at her place, she finds out that Henry has been getting high on his mother’s medication, which he ends up sharing with Ana.
The rest of the movie follows Henry’s downward spiral, as he gets more and more involved in Ana’s dangerous games. She’s constantly broke, so she owes drug dealers money, and she’s always thinking up ways to get money for drugs.
Ana has a job as a bartender at a local restaurant/bar, but she also gets money from her enabling mother, who pays for Ana’s rent. Ana’s mother is neither seen nor heard in the movie, but Ana frequently communicates with her worried mother by phone. Ana’s father is not seen or mentioned in the story.
As the more experienced drug user, Ana also gives Henry advice on what she considers to be the best way to use opioids. She doesn’t have a car, so Henry essentially because her willing chauffeur. Henry lets Ana use his cell phone, and eventually he gives her his dead mother’s cell phone, because Ana says that her phone is “busted” and she can’t afford a new one right now. (More likely, she’s stopped paying her cell phone bill.)
Ana constantly seems to be hiding from people who are looking for her, but she downplays any threats to their safety. However, Henry can’t ignore it when he and Ana start getting followed by men in a mysterious white van. And she also shows signs of paranoia that someone could try to break into her apartment while she’s gone, which is why she sometimes stays at Henry’s place.
Henry finds out that Ana’s main drug connection is a young dealer named Richard (played by Keir Gilchrist), who goes by the name Polo Boy because he used to wear preppy shirts with polo logos. Ana used to babysit Polo Boy, so she sometimes taunts him about his youth and tells him that he’s an “amateur” drug dealer who doesn’t have what it take to be in the big leagues.
However, Ana also offers sexual favors to Polo Boy when she can’t pay for the drugs that she wants. She makes this type of offer right in front of Henry—which is an indication that she doesn’t care if Henry knows how far she’s willing to go to get drugs. In a private conversation between Polo Boy and Henry, Polo Boy warns him about Ana: “She will sell your soul for something … that’s probably going to kill her.”
There’s also a fellow opioid addict named Jimmy (played by Tom Cullen), who’s close to Stevie and is part of Rachel’s circle of druggie friends. And this isn’t a harmless group: Jimmy, other clique members and the drug dealers they encounter carry guns and aren’t afraid to use them.
“Castle in the Ground” has some suspenseful moments, but much of the film realistically captures the foggy-minded, sluggish pace of people in the throes of opioid addiction, when there are long pauses in conversations, frequent nodding out, and difficulty focusing on doing simple things such as getting out of bed. People should not expect this movie to have a lot of non-stop adrenaline-pumping action where the drug addicts careen from one dangerous situation to the next. There are some elements of that in the story, but “Castle in the Ground” is more of a character study than a crime thriller.
And this movie also isn’t one where the addicts are involved in moving large quantities of dope. Instead, “Castle in the Ground” is a microcosm of how addiction affects young, middle-class white people, who usually get sentenced to rehab instead of prison if they’re convicted of possession of drugs in small, personal quantities. The racial disparity in how drug addicts are treated by law enforcement is probably why police officers are nowhere to be seen in this movie, even though Ana and Henry go to a well-known drug house in the neighborhood and they hang out with gun-toting drug users.
There is no real backstory for Ana, other than she’s been a drug addict for a number of years. Because Ana is such a liar and a manipulator and because very little is known about her background, the movie gives no indication if she was always an untrustworthy person or if she turned into a habitual liar because of her drug addiction. Poots gives a good performance, but the character is the type of “dishonest and flaky” junkie who’s been seen before in many other movies and TV shows about drug addiction.
Ana might be a lost cause for rehab and redemption, but is Henry? Wolff does a very effective portrayal of someone whose life has changed for the worse in a short period of time. One of the strong points of “Castle in the Ground” is that the movie shows how quickly addiction can take over people’s lives.
Henry’s co-dependent relationship with his mother also explains why he gravitated to getting involved with Ana, another “sick” person whom he wants to “take care” of because he thinks she’s incapable of fully taking care of herself. And if that parallel isn’t made clear enough, toward the end of the film, Ana starts wearing a dress that used to be owned by Henry’s dead mother. Ana admits to Henry that she took the dress after his mother died, but he doesn’t object to her wearing it. It’s a haunting and disturbing image, indicating that Henry has to overcome other issues besides drug addiction in order to have a healthy life.
Gravitas Ventures released “Castle in the Ground” on digital and VOD on May 15, 2020.