Review: Strong performances highlight a dinner party gone wrong in thriller 'Barbarians'

It’s no spoiler to say that writer-director Charles Dorfman’s debut feature, “Barbarians,” is a home-invasion thriller, even though during the picture’s first 50 minutes, audiences primed for action and horror may wonder if they’ve stumbled into the wrong movie. Dorfman spends a lot of time setting up the story’s underlying tensions at a dinner party that eventually erupts into violence, right before three masked men barge into the house and start tormenting the guests.

More than anything, “Barbarians” is a showcase for Tom Cullen, who gives a slyly comic and properly infuriating performance as the film’s true villain. Cullen plays Lucas Hunt, a social media influencer and entrepreneur who when the movie opens is riding high: He’s dating a popular actress, Chloe (Inès Spirodinov); and thanks to the tragic death of a rival, he’s just closed a deal to develop the prime real estate around an ancient stone monument in the British countryside.

Lucas plans to celebrate his wins with two friends — successful sculptor Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and her aspiring filmmaker boyfriend, Adam (Iwon Rheon) — at the gorgeous house on his new estate that he is about to sell to them. But the evening quickly becomes awkward, as the incorrigible alpha male Lucas teases and pokes at the meeker Adam, making unreasonable demands on him and Eva until Adam finally breaks and spills some embarrassing secrets.

That’s when the interloping trio knocks on the door, with animal masks on their heads and malice in mind. It’s also no spoiler to say that the attackers didn’t choose this house randomly but that they’re directly targeting the people inside. In the film’s second half, everyone’s motivations are revealed.

The big problem with “Barbarians” is that once the more bloody and bruising part of the story kicks in, all the slow-building anxiety among the four central characters rapidly dissipates. Dorfman does an excellent job of constructing a dialogue- and performance-driven chamber piece; but he shows less skill at staging fight scenes and raw terror.

Still, although “Barbarians” doesn’t have much new to add to the home-invasion genre or much new to say about rich bullies who make even their friends miserable, it really connects for a good, long stretch at the start. All four of the main actors — and especially Cullen — excel at depicting the strange power dynamics at play when a man who seemingly has everything starts asking for more.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.