[Originally written for theÂ University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Voices and Visions,” April 20, 1982]
Tight shot: a man’s back, naked, bent, straining; his bands tied behind him; his head, whether yearning forward or bowed in fear and trembling, unseen. The posture faintly evokes your basic bullet-in-the-back-of-the-neck, Darkness at Noonâ€“style execution. The Latin recitation somewhere just offscreen imparts a suggestion of religiosity to the agony. The man strains harder, balances precariously, and tips out of frame â€” out of existence, we might as well say, for he seems to have been lost in the white, infinite void of the empty screen.
Well, forget all that, because it’s wrong. Nobody’s getting executed or awaiting the zealot’s lash, and the infinite whiteness is just the bare wall of a room in a university dormitory shared by four premed students. They’ve also shared a ritual, over the years, of collecting their spare change in a piggybank, and now the time has come to see which of them gets to keep it. They could cut cards or play one-potata two-potata, but where’s the perversity in that? No, they turn it into a ritual ordeal, wherein each aspirant assumes the aforementioned position kneeling on the edge of a table, leeeeeeeans forward, tries to pluck up a matchbox, poised about two feet out, with his mouth, and (that’s not all, no, that’s not all, that would be too easy), having plucked it, seeks to resume his former kneeling-upright position as opposed to falling very painfully on his chin, nose, brow, or all three once they’ve been compacted into a single pulpy mass. First guy to succeed wins the piggy.
It’s that simple. In fact, quite often in Barrier things prove to be that simple, although we need a little time and a little looking-around before we can appreciate the fact. What seems weird, freaky, outrÃ© frequently turns out to be just the way things are in this neighborhood. That screaming of a soul in torment as the hero roves about a strange, shrouded white corridor? Well, you see, next door there’s a dentist’s office; and the shrouds, that’s no big deal â€” some students are supposed to come over later and clean the place up, and I mean, we wouldn’t want the antlers (huh?!) getting dusty….