‘Barbarian:’ Who are the snakes?

AJ Gilbride (Justin Long) grimaces in disgust as he comes across “The Mother” in the basement: a victim and permanent remnant of Frank’s crimes. // Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Warning: Spoilers ahead

The hollow rattle of a viper’s tail chatters in the distance, invoking fear in prey and people alike. Snakes slither through life, blending in and striking at anything less powerful than them. They are a symbol of evil and death. Colloquially, however, snakes are not animals, but people. They are backstabbers — the barbarians — who have a tendency to manipulate situations to craft a narrative that presents themselves as innocent. Zach Cregger’s 2022 film “Barbarian” subverts horror movie tropes and questions who the true snakes of society are. It encompasses themes of power hierarchies, social class, fate and the injustice of existence, ideas that Cregger highlights using violence, irony and juxtaposition. 

Although the first half of the film has valuable commentary surrounding feminism and perceptions of men and women today, the second half of the film truly dives into major societal divisions with the introduction of Hollywood executive AJ Gilbride (Justin Long, “Tusk”). AJ enters the movie speeding down a California highway singing “Riki Tiki Tavi” by Donovan in a vintage red convertible when he receives a call that someone accused him of sexual assault, and that he is getting dropped from the project he was working on. AJ curses at the people at the other end of the line, pulls off the side of the road and stares off into the distance with his mouth agape. 

This scene foreshadows the rest of the plot and the major themes of the film in a gloriously ironic way. “Riki Tiki Tavi” alludes to a short story from “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling, in which a mongoose kills a cobra attempting to attack the British family that adopted Rikki-Tikki. The moral of this fable is based in colonialism and that the British should not punish “good” colonized peoples. In the song, however, Donovan calls out the offensiveness of the story, saying that the mongoose was a victim of the power structures in his society. The lesson of the song is to distrust the powerful, because they will not kill snakes for their people. AJ fails to recognize that he is in a position of power, and that he is the snake someone is trying to kill. He views himself as a victim of his accuser’s “lies” and as such attempts to take the situation into his own hands. 

The juxtaposition between the narratives permeated by those in power versus those that are disempowered is a prominent feature of the film. For example, when AJ arrives in his Detroit AirBnB and goes downstairs only to discover the hidden corridor as well as the room with the bloodstained bed, he immediately goes back upstairs to see if he could count the secret tunnel in the square footage of the house when he sold it. 

AJ’s oblivion is comical, but also furthers the idea of how one’s treatment in society can shape their perception of various issues. A situation that was alarming to Tess, a young Black woman, was simply a way to make money for AJ, a middle-aged, white man. Time and time again, AJ tries to profit off the backs of the disempowered, from sexual violence to gentrifying a poor suburb. 

A second introduction, that of the house’s previous owner, Frank, is equally as jarring as AJ’s arrival in the film. The film cuts from a desolate gray to an overly saturated scene in a seemingly utopian neighborhood. In the flashback sequence, it is revealed that a man named Frank inhabited the house in the 1980s and would stalk women, kidnap them and then rape them in the basement. As his neighbors left due to a Reagan-era fear that the poor and overwhelmingly Black communities of Detroit were a threat to their safety and power as white people, Frank remained in the house with the women he assaulted. Not only does this scene carry extreme weight in terms of plot, it forwards many of the ongoing themes of the film. It firstly tackles the central idea that no organization will fight the true threats to a society, as the U.S. government fabricated “snakes” of the suburbs and failed to address someone who had abducted dozens of women. Even Frank’s neighbors ignored blatant signs that he was lying, such as the work uniform he wore to go undercover labeled “Carlos.” They continued to believe that the threats to their community were elsewhere, creating dramatic irony.

The similarities between AJ and Frank truly reach a head when AJ  finds an elderly and bedridden Frank sitting in bed in the depths of the tunnel system under the house. AJ gives Frank water and tells Frank that he will help him leave, before looking at Frank’s shelf of cassettes labeled with names and descriptions of women next to a TV. It becomes abundantly clear who the man is and what he has done. AJ is visibly terrified and appalled, ironically so, because he is essentially looking at a reflection of himself. Frank pulls out a gun from his bedside table and kills himself, foreshadowing AJ’s own death and the consequences of immoral action. 

Although there are a myriad of examples of power abuses in the film, like the police not taking Tess’s kidnapping seriously and calling her a criminal for breaking the window to escape, the clearest example of abuse is one of the final scenes of the film. Shortly after AJ shoots Tess, they find themselves running away from The Mother, Frank’s victim who was a “misdirect” villain of the story before Frank’s crimes were revealed. AJ sprints up the stairs of the water tower, with Tess limping behind him. When Tess makes it to the top, The Mother is just behind her. In an attempt to save himself, AJ pushes Tess off the edge of the water tower, which distracts The Mother, giving AJ time to run down the stairs. When he gets to the bottom, he finds that The Mother threw herself under Tess to break her fall. AJ is extremely apologetic and tries to deflect blame, saying that Tess slipped off the tower. Then, The Mother wakes up from under Tess and kills AJ for threatening her baby, Tess, as she was taught to do in the basement. 

It is clear Tess sympathizes with the woman, who is a victim of her circumstances. However, societal failures do not always excuse individual action, and the lines between good and evil can be blurred. With nobody else to turn to, Tess shoots The Mother with Frank’s — her and The Mother’s captor’s — gun. This ending was bittersweet, but known since AJ entered the film. After all, Donovan says, “When I was a young man, I was led to believe there were organizations to kill my snakes for me … but when I got a little older, I learned I had to kill ‘em myself.”