Waiting for the Barbarians

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Waiting for the Barbarians Movie Poster Image
Uneven but powerful war drama has gory violence.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 113 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Complex layers of themes about human behavior in terms of violence and war. Some people rationalize cruelty and torture in name of justice; others who practice kindness and caring can become unwitting catalysts for further violence through inaction or naivete.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The Magistrate is a genuinely kind, caring, empathetic, intelligent character who's worthy of being considered a role model -- except that his actions are indirectly responsible for violence, and, in the end, he's left with nothing but doom.


A row of prisoners have hands wired to their faces through their cheeks, then connected together by a long wire. They're beaten with wooden staffs. A child is invited to beat them, too; she does. More beating, with broken arm, gurgling blood. Character with top of head sliced off (flies buzz around remains). Character with two broken legs; she describes being tortured (hot fork poked in eyes, partially blinding her). Prisoner hanged by wrists from tree, screaming in pain. General background guns and shooting. Blood-covered prisoners. Dead body, bloody face. Bloody wounds. Icky sore on neck. Threats. Scary sandstorm. Humiliating a prisoner by dressing him in women's things.


Two characters seemingly share a bed; sex may or may not be implied. Woman's naked back and partial naked bottom shown. Woman in partially see-through nightgown. Mention of prostitution.


Two uses of "f--king."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Waiting for the Barbarians is an intense drama based on J.M. Coetzee's novel about a magistrate (Oscar winner Mark Rylance) at a remote, unnamed outpost whose attempts at kindness result in violence. It has scenes of shocking violence and gore: Prisoners' hands are wired to their faces, and a row of them are all wired together. The top half of a man's head is missing, and a woman describes brutal torture done to her (being blinded with a hot fork, her legs broken). There's also beating, screaming, guns and shooting, lots of blood, and dead bodies. A sexual relationship is suggested between two characters, but nothing explicit is shown. Expect glimpses of a woman's naked back and the top of her buttocks, as well as a somewhat see-through nightgown. The word "f--king" is used twice. It's a little uneven and stiff, but the performances, cinematography, and themes make it worth a look for mature viewers. Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson co-star.

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What's the story?

In WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, a magistrate (Mark Rylance) is in charge of a remote outpost on an unnamed border. He receives a visit from Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), who's determined to ward off a supposed impending attack by the "barbarians." The kindly magistrate politely disagrees, but Joll heads off into the desert in search of people he can imprison and interrogate. Later, the magistrate discovers an abused, homeless woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) who has been blinded, with both her legs broken. He takes her to his quarters and tries to nurse her back to health. He vows to bring her back to her people, even though he has fallen in love with her. After a perilous trip through the desert and back, the magistrate returns to the outpost, only to find Joll and the vicious Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson) there -- and to discover that he's been accused of treason.

Is it any good?

Uneven and sometimes a little rigid, this adaptation of J.M. Coetzee's 1980 novel eventually finds its footing through several forceful performances, some gorgeous passages, and its relevant themes. Adapted by Nobel Prize winner Coetzee himself (his first screenplay) and directed by Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra (the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent), Waiting for the Barbarians is told in four chapters, one named for each season. It starts off a little oddly, given that it's set in no particular time or place. Then Colonel Joll arrives wearing strange, otherworldly sunglasses; coupled with the writerly sounding dialogue, it feels as if the movie could almost be science fiction.

Fortunately, the performers find ways to act through the words -- Rylance with his inherent sense of kindness and soft intelligence and Depp amusingly expressing a seething evil, perfectly controlled and inflexible, conveyed through one of the actor's trademark brisk British accents. Bayarsaikhan has a quietly mesmerizing screen presence, and Pattinson lets his steely eyes and jaw project a searing brutality. The dynamic, well-composed outdoor sequences further improve things, even if the last chapter suddenly includes images of violence and horror that some viewers may wish they could unsee. But it's the final image of Waiting for the Barbarians that haunts, leaving off with the realization that we brought this on ourselves.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Waiting for the Barbarians' violence. Does the gore and blood help tell the story? How did it make you feel? What's the impact of media violence on kids?

  • Is the magistrate a role model? Even though his actions led to disaster, does that mean he shouldn't have done them?

  • How does the movie portray the relationship between the magistrate and the girl? Is it sexual? Is there love? Is it about possession? What values are imparted?

  • Why do you think Colonel Joll is so intent on making war with the "barbarians" when leaving them alone is a good option? What draws humans to war?

  • How does the movie compare to the novel?

Movie details

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