Waiting For The Barbarians shows its thematic hand early. There will be, in actuality, very little waiting before the irony at the crux of its story is revealed: that the truly barbaric has and will continue to masquerade under the guise of order and civility.
It’s a powerful theme, but the execution of its story can feel a little akin to having sat through lengthy, slow-motion footage of a deadly avalanche- its destruction is painful to witness, but also a little obvious once you take into account the direction of gravity.
Barbarians centers around a well meaning, unnamed Magistrate played by Mark Rylance, a sympathetic but tediously oblivious character tasked with managing an imperial outpost surrounded by an inhospitable desert. While perhaps not the most suited to the more bureaucratic obligations of his job, he has managed to foster a peaceful community free of conflict with the surrounding nomadic tribes.
All of that changes, of course, when an armed military branch of the Empire under the command of Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) rides into the community and begins mercilessly targeting the desert’s native people.
The film is worth watching if only for the performances. Rylance is able to bring a captivating emotional depth to the screen. His character carries a sweetness that almost makes us forgive his naivete. Depp is frighteningly convincing for his part. He paints a portrait of sadism that eerily rests behind a mask of powerful composure.
Robert Pattinson comes in half way through the story to add a more hot headed, testosterone fueled representation of the “good soldier,” eagerly doling out violence in service of some greater allegiance.
The Colonel and his men have come with one mission in mind- to undermine some imagined attack being plotted by the nomadic population against the outpost. Their paranoia serves to be, of course, unfounded, until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The torture to which they subject the native population is grueling to watch, and the “confessions” they obtain as a result of their twisted measures are of course, merely concocted, the result of desperate attempts to escape their nefarious tactics- a reality painfully obvious to the Magistrate.
It’s easy to appreciate the timeliness of a story centered around anti-intellectualism, fear of the other, and the colonial legacy of state-sanctioned violence against non-white people. That being said, this film begs the question of whether or not there is a more interesting way to approach these subjects.
Perhaps we’ve worn out the welcome of stories about colonialism centered upon the white perspective. It’s difficult to stay engaged with a narrative that centers around psychopathic perpetrators of empirical violence and an ultimately feeble protagonist that effectively serves as little more than their punching bag.
The screenplay, written by nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, has been adapted from his 1980 novel by the same name, and there is, of course, much that feels masterful in his writing. The allegory of Barbarians is placeless, an effective device serving as a reminder that its tragic events mirror any number of those that have occurred in reality across vast swaths of the globe.
Unfortunately, as many critics have already pointed out, the adaptation feels more literary than cinematic. It centers upon the magistrate’s internal conflict, already a challenge for a visual medium, and the plot seems too inherently lacking in tension to play well on screen.
The film itself is beautiful thanks to its cinematographer, Chris Menges. The production design, while visually satisfying, feels bold and dystopian in a way that prepares the viewer for something more akin to the fast paced and imaginative world of a graphic novel, rather than what is ultimately an anguishing character study.
Ultimately, one gets the sense that the story’s author is a little like its protagonist, painfully aware of the horrors of genocide, but unsure what there is to be done or said about it apart from reiterating the fact that it’s been really, really bad.
Ultimately Barbarians feels self indulgent- a marination on white guilt lacking in hope or a more nuanced portrayal of the victims of colonialism.
112 minutes | No MPAA rating
Laura Day is a Reel New York correspondent. Contact her at Laura@reelchicago.com