I get what writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman is aiming towards here. His screenplay for The Barrens long predates Ti West's The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, but these movies all share quite a few of the same genetic markers. They're character-oriented genre films...slow burns that elevate mood and atmosphere above standard issue jump scares. As understated and low-key as these movies are throughout the overwhelming majority of their runtimes, they all explode with unrelenting intensity in their final ten minutes. I have an enormous amount of respect for that sort of approach. It's not even a little bit commercial, and it sure as hell ain't easy. For my money, Ti West twice now has brilliantly executed those sorts of slow burns. The Barrens doesn't.
The fatal flaw in The Barrens is that it revolves around such a woefully uninteresting family. Sadie is a paint-by-numbers rebellious teen. Danny's a routine doe-eyed cute kid. Cynthia is pretty much nothing but dead air. The Barrens spends so much time with them, and yet no one's really infused with any life...any dimension...any color...any vivacity. Even though the cast contributes solid performances all around, the first hour and change of the movie fails to
On the other hand, there's a point when enough of Richard's descent comes to light that the story becomes astonishingly compelling. This is easily a career-best performance by Stephen Moyer...an immensely powerful turn as a character whose every last circuit has blown...haunted, manic, bedraggled, and hopelessly disconnected from reality. When all hell breaks loose in the final reel, everything comes together brilliantly. Characters I'd previously found so uninvolving and one-dimensional now have a complete chokehold on me. A score that all of a sudden starts channeling Goblin and a tremendous homage to Don't Look Now certainly don't hurt either. The Barrens' final fifteen minutes or so are breathlessly intense, and so much of that is drawn from some extraordinary performances by its ensemble. Those final moments repeatedly defy whatever expectations the audience may have set...so masterfully executed on every level that they more than make up for the long, tedious road to get there.
Shot under the most grueling conditions in essentially 18 days, there was rarely time for more than one take, depriving the cast of the chance to better settle into their characters. Bousman's original cut was considerably leaner, but to make the movie an easier sell overseas, it was mandated that The Barrens drag on longer than it really ought to. The Barrens has the right cast, the right director, and the right crew toiling away behind the scenes, and if there hadn't been such a mad rush to get something in the can -- if there were the time and money to make the movie that Bousman envisioned -- I'd likely be writing a very different review right about now. As things stand, though, The Barrens stacks a spectacular finalé on top of a bloated, largely uninvolving foundation, and there's too little of interest to slog through to get to that payoff. Rent It.
Shot on gritty 16mm stock, The Barrens is a deliberately rough-hewn movie that looks as if it could've been filmed at any point betwen 1987 and last Thursday. The colors occasionally have a digitally graded look to 'em, and the weathered faces of Stephen Moyer and Mia Kirshner root The Barrens in the here and now, but otherwise, there's a very timeless look to the movie that brilliantly complements its slower burn. I'm in awe of how seemingly every last granule is rendered clearly and distinctly, and the AVC encode handles this challenging texture without any concerns whatsoever. Though the photography is softer and less detailed than average, I'm left with the sense that everything that can possibly be resolved is on display here. A razor-sharp and dazzlingly clean digital image just...wouldn't work here. This is the aesthetic that The Barrens needs.
There's really only one major complaint I have, and after opening this screenshot to full-size, you probably won't need me to spell it out for you:
Black levels are occasionally underwhelming, fine detail has a tendency to get devoured in the shadows, and some sputters and stutters in the compression are visible upon closer inspection. Generally, though, I couldn't be happier with the way The Barrens looks on Blu-ray. A film this stylized has to be approached with a different set of expectations, and I absolutely feel that its presentation here is extremely faithful to the source.
The Barrens arrives on a single layer Blu-ray disc, encoded with AVC and presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. A widescreen DVD is along for the ride as well.
On the other hand, The Barrens' 16-bit Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is a little more routine. Clarity and fidelity are fine but nothing particularly noteworthy. The film's dialogue is generally reproduced well, aside from one conversation in a storm that sounds flatter and duller than the rest. The surrounds are used well: Richard being overwhelmed when first stepping foot on the campsite, a fever dream of the Jersey Devil soaring overhead,
No dubs or alternate mixes this time around. Subtitles are limited to English (SDH) and Spanish.
The second disc in this combo pack is an anamorphic widescreen DVD. The Barrens comes packaged in a glossy and slightly embossed slipcover.
The Final Word
The Barrens is a breathlessly intense and masterfully crafted finalé in search of a movie to hoist itself on top of. Your reaction to The Barrens is almost certainly going to depend on how willing you are to trudge through its largely uninteresting first seventysomething minutes. There's a difference between a slow burn and straight-up tedium, and The Barrens stays on the wrong side of that line for far too long. Rent It.