Americana Mystery 'Barber' Misses Spots in Thrills, Rationality

Directed by: Basel Owies; Runtime: 95 minutes
Grade: C

Seem as if the world of cinema really, really wants audiences to fear thy neighbor right now, more than normal, but that's to be expected following the pop-culture success of the likes of Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where seemingly normal citizens conceal warped, lethal tendencies. The Barber, the feature-length debut of director Basel Owies, emerges as yet another example among a rash of films exploring the mentality of a serial killer hiding in plain sight, aiming for something bleak and disturbing by emphasizing the fallibility of detective work and the prospect of a protege to a murderer. Beyond the creepy evolution of Scott Glenn's performance and a succession of plot twists that are momentarily intriguing until they're elaborated upon, little distinguishes this grim mystery as it slogs through doubtful, lumbering suspense against the setting of suburban America, missing its opportunity to really dig into the eeriness of this profession as his cover-up.

Think about this for a second: how much does one really know about the person snipping away at their hair and running a razorblade along their skin? In the case of Eugene Van Wingerdt (Glenn), people have had quite a while to get to know the local barber -- at least, what he wants them to know -- given his longstanding, uneventful existence in a nondescript town, despite the past he's hidden from the community involving his suspicion with a series of murders. Some fifteen-odd years after the killings, the traumatized son of one of the unsuccessful detectives on the case, John McCormack, has been tracking him down ... but with obscure motives behind doing so, at first. After hounding Van Wingerdt, also known as Francis Visser, John persuades him to teach the ways of hunting and killing as he supposedly did nearly two decades prior; to what end, however, remains one of the film's mysteries as the old barber maintains appearances and begrudgingly begins his instruction of his protege.

Promo materials for The Barber heavily emphasize Visser's profession, which might lead one to believe that it'll be a distinguishing trait within Basel Owies's thriller, like a grim real-world twist on Sweeney Todd or something. That's really only true on a superficial level, in that this suspected serial killer could've had any number of jobs -- grocery bagger, car salesman, casket maker -- and it wouldn't have really made a dent in screenwriter Max Enscoe's setting, aside from a reference here and there to good razors, paying attention to details, and a single shave and a haircut. Instead, Van Wingerdt's job simply puts him in a high-exposure area where he rubs elbows with all sorts of people, including police chief Hardaway (Stephen Toblowsky), bypassing an opportunity for more intriguing, morbid suspense. Bear in mind, that's partly in-line with the film's goal in making the audience wonder whether he's really the killer or not, but something more could've been done with it to accentuate the mood.

Creepy horror isn't really the tone that Basel Owies aims for with The Barber, though, sharing faint similarities to some of David Fincher's macabre mysteries -- the impetus of Se7en and Zodiac, in particular -- with its streak of suspense. Despite early, foreshadowed suspicions about what the characters are up to, the script telegraphs a handful of surprises in how it shuffles around those truths, navigating through John's ruthless motivations and the barber's haunting past in ways that are moderately intriguing ... for a few brief moments. Regrettably, those slivers of shock are about all the twists have going for 'em, undermined by irrational decision-making and fickle trust placed in strangers so the story can progress, rationality be damned. The personal angle of John McCormick's renegade fanaticism and his romance with undercover cop, Audrey, aren't substantial enough to offset that feeble grasp on common sense, even with Chris Coy's reputable fusion of anxiety and fury around the suspected killer.

The Barber works vigorously to make the audience uncertain of what to make of Francis Visser's feeble frame and cryptic, conservative language, and while that may keep some guessing, it also subtracts from a more menacing villainous presence. Scott Glenn's stern, quietly ominous performance takes a stab at reaching enigmatic depth and misanthropy, yet there's very little that's tangible about the barber's personality beyond his past and enduring deception, mostly out of obligation to the film's secrecy. Unlike the Zodiac Killer's cryptograms or the cultured psychological warfare of Hannibal Lecter, Van Wingerdt only has a line of everyday serial-killer traits -- cleanliness, perception of public awareness, finding girls "yummy" -- to fill out his persona while Basel Owies uses sleight of hand to conceal the facts. When The Barber arrives at its moral dilemma in the end, involving a different sort of box than Se7en's Detective Mills dealt with, the nonplussed and roundabout atmosphere hanging in the air shows they might've cut too much off Visser's character in pursuit of thinly-veiled ambiguity.

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