The Barber

barberDirect-to-video is a sewer. I like to be surprised and find new things, and you would think that the low-cost, quick-turnaround world of DTV would yield an occasional gem. But I am convinced that this is a stupid hope. There will never be a good market for DTV in America.

But hope persists, and the salutary reviews of The Barber intrigued me – the fact that it stars Malcolm McDowell, a great actor, clinched the deal. Unfortunately, it is not a great movie. Many parts suck, but those that don’t are surprisingly effective.

McDowell is the barber in a small Alaskan town where everyone knows everyone else. In the winter, it is dark twenty-four hours a day. The barber is a serial killer: Semi-retired in Alaska, he committed a bunch of murders in Seattle.

So he kills a girl, false leads abound, and we get the inevitable conflict between the feds and the locals. It is nothing that we have not seen before; yet at times the plot is hard to comprehend, and the end is entirely ludicrous.

However, the film has its moments. DTV movies want to emulate the big boys, but their budgets are small. This ensures the laughability of their efforts, which are so often green with greed that you can’t even root for the filmmaker as the little guy – as someone who tries to express himself and tell a story. Making the most of the limited scope of the TV screen, The Barber unfolds in small and very real moments.

In performance after performance, the actors hit the right notes. The characters have a small-town quirkiness, but they do not feel constructed. Flashes of dialogue help to reveal character and the way the town operates: In a scene where the sheriff browbeats the deputy into giving him the keys to the jail, there is potency – a reality and pain.

But somebody got stupid and decided that we needed to be reminded that we are watching a cheap film.1 So we have to make do with bad narration, McDowell hamming it up and destroying the mood of the film. This is particularly invidious, since the performance (onscreen) is so powerful and subtle. In one scene, he helps a woman decorate a Christmas tree, and for a moment the veil drops – we see that his friendliness is just a facade, and that underneath it is something not quite human. It is chilling.

So, by narration and implausibility, and by slack pacing and clumpy music cues, The Barber is almost ruined. But it is not a failure. The elements are there for greatness, but we only get the promise of what might have been. According to IMDB, the budget was a million dollars. In The Bedroom had a budget of less than double that.

Bedroom is a brilliant character study with a surprising (but plausible) story. The Barber could have been the same, but it isn’t. (Sigh.)

1This is evident when we hear (but do not see) McDowell watching Angel Heart (one of my all-time favorite movies): other actors rerecorded the dialogue between Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet. Ten points for taste, two for style.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email