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‘Barbarian’ ending explained

Basements are not good places.

Georgina Campbell in 'Barbarian'
Image via 20th Century Studios

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Barbarian.

Few movies have caused more of a stir than Barbarian. If you haven’t seen it, you probably shouldn’t read this, but if you’re a spoiler freak who lives for this kind of thrill, you may know that most people who have seen Barbarian encourage you to learn as little as possible about the movie going in. That’s because of the movie’s many twists and turns, which we’re about to dive into in depth, so if you really don’t want to know what happens this is your last chance to leave.

Two people share an Airbnb

Barbarian almost didn't get made
Image via 20th Century Fox

Barbarian opens with a relatively straightforward conceit. A young woman named Tess has booked an Airbnb in a rundown suburb of Detroit because she has a job interview the next day. When she arrives at the house, she discovers that the rental has been double booked, and there’s already a man named Keith living there. Tess is understandably uneasy, and much of the tension in the first half of the movie comes from her concern that Keith may be trying to harm her in some way.

Eventually, Keith convinces Tess to share the Airbnb with him: she’ll take the bed, and he’ll take the couch. Before they go to bed, though, the two bond and appear to start flirting.

From there, Tess goes to her job interview after waking up to find Keith already gone for the day. When she returns, he’s still out, and she’s chased inside by a man who tells her that staying in that house is unsafe. While using the bathroom, Tess discovers that it’s out of toilet paper, and descends to the house’s basement to grab some, accidentally locking herself inside in the process.

While trapped in the basement, she discovers that the basement has a secret, dimly lit tunnel which is opened by a rope. While she initially decides that she won’t go down there, she eventually does, using a mirror to reflect light from the ceiling and shine her way forward. In the tunnel, she discovers a stained bed and a film camera on a stand. Understandably freaked, she gets Keith’s help to break out of the basement and then tells him that they need to leave.

Keith, acting a little bit shady if we’re honest, says that he wants to check out what Tess has seen before they hit the road. Tess agrees to stay and wait for him, and when he doesn’t return, she heads back down in the basement to look for him. While she’s in the basement, she discovers an array of tunnels behind the room with the camera. The tunnels are deep underground, and there’s no natural light. She discovers Keith down there, and he tells her that something bit him. Then, we get a brief look at a woman as she bashes his brains in and the movie cuts to black.

Enter Justin Long

Justin Long in Barbarian
Image via 20th Century Fox

We’re left to wonder what happened to Tess while we cut to a Hollywood producer who has just been accused of raping a woman. Because his solid financial footing is suddenly in question, the producer is forced to liquidate some of his investments, which happen to include several homes near Detroit, where he lives. In order to free up funds for lawsuits and other expenses, he decides to fly to Detroit to liquidate his assets, and chooses to stay at the very same Airbnb that Tess and Keith were sharing.

When he arrives, he discovers Tess and Keith’s stuff, but assumes that he has squatters living in his house. He goes to check the basement, and discovers the same secret passageways that Tess and Keith were exploring. Because he’s a horrible person, though, he pulls out the tape measure and begins to measure the extra square footage that he’ll be able to list as part of the property. While he’s measuring the network of tunnels, he falls into a trap and finds himself trapped in a pit right next to Tess.

Tess explains that the woman, known as The Mother, just wants them to act like her children and drink her milk. When The Mother lowers milk into the pit, Tess drinks it, but AJ refuses. When he refuses, The Mother pulls him out of the pit and forces him to drink her breast milk. While The Mother is distracted, Tess sneaks out and manages to escape the basement with help from Andrew, the homeless man who chased her earlier. Tess calls the police, but they don’t believe that anything is amiss.

Back to the Reagan Era

Another sudden cut takes us back to this same house in the early 1980s. There, we meet Frank, who owned the home at the time and stalked and abducted young women, keeping them captive in the tunnels below his house. He raped these women, and then raised their children.

The Mother is Frank’s only remaining child

Image via 20th Century Fox

It’s then that we realize that The Mother is one of Frank’s children, and seems to be the product of several generations of inbreeding. She is largely nonverbal and, as Andre explains, does not come out during the day, but sometimes leaves the house at night. AJ, who is still in captivity, discovers a room that The Mother is afraid of, and then discovers an aged, bed-ridden Frank in the room. He finds tapes of him raping women, and also inadvertently gives him access to a gun which he immediately uses to shoot himself. AJ then grabs the gun and attempts to navigate his way out.

Tess waits outside for The Mother in her car, and when she leaves the house, she pins her between the house and her car, seemingly killing her. Tess then descends back into the tunnels to find AJ, who inadvertently shoots her. They make their escape, but The Mother isn’t on the car when they return above ground. They find Andre, who explains The Mother’s origins. The Mother then finds them, and brutally kills Andre.

The Mother chases AJ and a wounded Tess to the top of a water tower, and when AJ realizes that they’re trapped, he proceeds to push Tess from the top of the tower to save himself. The Mother dives after Tess, shielding her from the fall and possibly killing herself in the process. When AJ climbs down the water tower to apologize, saying that he had no choice, we discover that The Mother is very much not dead, and she proceeds to crush his skull with her bare hands. The Mother then tries to nurse Tess back to health, but Tess shoots her with the gun and then stumbles off, badly wounded.

‘Barbarian’ is a wonderful sendup of misogyny

Georgina Campbell in 'Barbarian'
Image via 20th Century Fox

The plotting in Barbarian is so madcap that it can be hard to stop and think about what it all means. Ultimately, though, this is a story about the horrific ways men prey upon women, and have for decades. Keith turns out to be a decent man, but the movie wants you to be suspicious of him right up until the moment he dies. AJ and Frank, meanwhile, are various degrees of terrible, men who believe they deserve whatever they want from the women around them.

Tess is not some hero, though, she’s just a decent person trying to stay alive. The Mother, meanwhile, is scary, but ultimately someone we feel empathy for. Her condition is in no way her own fault, and is the result of a man’s terrible actions.

Add in some trenchant commentary about the state of the city of Detroit, and Barbarian becomes one of the most thrilling horror movies in years. You can read We Got This Covered’s 4/5 star review here.

About the author

Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a freelance writer based out of upstate New York who has been covering movies and TV for more than five years. Joe has been featured in The Washington Post, Paste Magazine, and The Charleston Post Courier, and has a Master's in journalism from Syracuse University