There’s a moment in “The Barber,” near the end of the second act, where a film we so far perceived to be yet another forgettable serial killer flick with a list of clichés a mile high, could have turned into a brilliantly subversive take on the genre via a genuinely clever plot twist. If only the filmmakers followed that train of thought. Right before a wannabe serial killer thinks he is about to learn the tricks of the trade from an old man he thought to be his master, he finds out that the old man wasn’t a killer after all.
He was just a lonely septuagenarian who read up on serial killers so he could have the young man for company. It turns out that this tired genre rethread wasn’t even a serial killer thriller, but a drama about the relationship between a disturbed kid and a lonely old man. Sounds like a delightfully inventive twist, doesn’t it? Alas, this setup is used to pay off yet another woefully predictable and nonsensical twist in a film that unfortunately doesn’t run out of them early enough.
How unoriginal is “The Barber”? At the beginning, we’re treated to a media montage full of audio clips from news reports and headlines in lieu of cleverly written exposition so the audience can be brought up to speed. Haven’t we had enough of this technique? Isn’t there a better way to introduce the main conflict of a film without having to resort to a montage of fake news? Anyway, the choppily edited media stories talk about a serial killer named Eugene (Scott Glenn), an old fart with a penchant for burying young girls alive. Eugene is eventually caught, but is allowed to walk after a cop who was obsessed with apprehending him misplaced some crucial evidence. Wracked with guilt, the cop kills himself.
20 years later, John (Chris Koy), that cop’s son and a strapping young police officer himself, finds Eugene, who’s now hiding in a small town as a sweet, unassuming barber, and pretends to be a budding serial killer obsessed with Eugene’s work. His goal is to get Eugene to take him under his wing, teach him the secret art of trashy waitress burial, catch him in the act, and deliver him to the authorities, thereby fulfilling his father’s legacy. Unfortunately, along the way, John finds out that Eugene has special plans for him as well.
The mentor/rookie serial killer approach has been done to death, the latest example of which was the dismal Kevin Costner vehicle “Mr. Brooks.” “The Barber” offers a little bit of an improvement over “Mr. Brooks,” but that’s very faint praise. However, not only does “The Barber” not bring anything new to that dynamic, it cuts off any possible credibility by having Eugene, a supposed criminal mastermind, trust John too easily.
The screenplay by Max Enscoe doesn’t spend more than a couple of quick scenes to establish this relationship, perhaps so he can allow enough space during third act to let all those wonderfully original twists squeeze in. It’s hard to believe that all it takes for a vicious killer who managed to create a brand new life for himself to spill the beans to a stranger is for that stranger to kill someone, the details of which become even more ridiculous when we find out what happened later on.
Another angle brought forth by “The Barber” is the old “The person you least suspect is the one you should suspect the most” approach, in this case personified by the friendly old barber of a small town. There’s a reason Scott Glenn is revered by his peers, the man can turn even the most thankless role into gold. As Eugene, he brings some interesting touches to his part. I especially appreciated the fact that he hangs onto his benign grandpa persona even while discussing the details of how he picked and disposed of his victims.
Unfortunately, the screenplay, as well as the direction by first-time feature helmer Basel Owies, has him awkwardly switch around between multiple personalities and character motivations during the climax in order to sell one of those plot twists that used to come prepackaged with every “Saw” sequel. Not only that, he’s asked to deliver a clunky monologue specifically explaining to the audience the theme behind his character. And you thought the “You were expecting a monster?” monologue from “8 MM” was too on-the-nose.
In the end, “The Barber” is a halfway decently executed, run-of-the-mill serial killer flick with an impressive cast that also includes Stephen Tobolowsky as a cop who loves beating up his suspects (“Watch out for that last slap, it’s a doozy!”). The acting and the direction shows enough promise to keep it from being buried alive, but it might not be the worst idea to put it out of its misery and ignore it. [D]