The Plot: Life is something of a living hell for middle-aged sad sack Beau (Joaquin Phoenix). He appears to live in a post-apocalyptic warzone… or maybe he just thinks that. Fearful of venturing outside for errands in case he’s attacked by a naked random stranger, he stays at home thereby increasing his anxiety. He’s due to travel though to visit his mother Mona (Patti LuPone), to mark the passing of his father. Once he steps foot outside though, he begins a wild odyssey of self-discovery that takes in the city, suburbs and forests where he encounters all manner of life while confronting his own dark past…
The Verdict: Ari Aster established himself as a distinctive new voice in American independent cinema with his disturbing, head-spinning horrors Hereditary and Midsommar. They pushed at the boundaries of what horror can achieve when analysing just how horrific family trauma can be, especially when left unchecked and buried away waiting to surface some day. He’s back once more with his latest film Beau Is Afraid, which he describes as a nightmare comedy – with more family trauma of course. That’s a succinct description for a film that is many different things all at once. Here’s just a sample: unpredictable, ponderous, hilarious, provocative, ugly, beautiful. It’s a psychologist’s field day, prompting that cliched but true question of what exactly Aster’s relationship is with his mother. One is indeed left to wonder as the credits roll after three hours locked inside his head as he spins out a Kafkaesque tale where it’s never quite obvious where the story is going or even when it’s going.
That’s an admirable approach to draw an audience in, given how lazily predictable many films are these days. Aster’s script is neatly divided into three acts, with the second act set amongst a troupe of actors in a forest being the shortest. It’s the most interesting of the acts, using startling animation and decent aging make-up to further muddy the waters about Beau’s past, present and future. There’s an artistic beauty to these sequences which screams pure cinema – this is a film to experience on the big screen without any distractions… and no escape (other than the exit door as some might be inclined early on). Getting to that point involves a chaotic but wildly entertaining first act which sees Beau dealing with his neurotic fear of the world outside. When there are corpses left lying on the street and noisy neighbours who complain about him, is it all just in his head? Nothing seems to go right for him, even when dealing with kindly strangers and their apparently insane teenage daughter.
The third act is…. well… you’ll see if you dare, but it does feature the year’s most unsexy sex scene for starters. Trust Aster to amp up the uncomfortability of it all. He wants you to squirm in your seat as much as possible. Frankly, that’s a more appealing proposition than sitting there passively letting it drift past you like a bland blockbuster. Whatever psychological issues that Aster is working out here onscreen – real and/or imaginary – give the distinct impression of an absurdist daylight nightmare where it may all be taking place inside Beau’s head… or maybe not. Joaquin Phoenix, an ideally committed creative partner for Aster to work with, holds the screen with his intense stare of utter confusion and abject horror (a decapitation once again features) at the unfolding circus of humanity as Beau himself simultaneously unravels. There’s a wiry sense of pathos in his performance, which makes up for Aster’s own indulgence in overstretching his mark and aiming a little too high this time.
That ambition comes with time and Aster obviously felt emboldened by the reactions to his previous films. Beau Is Afraid is clearly a highly ambitious piece of filmmaking and there’s a lot to admire here, but it’s also a helluva lot to take in and process. Perhaps too much which will inevitably be divisive, but one imagines that Aster wouldn’t have it any other way. Be afraid… be very afraid of Beau Is Afraid… or maybe just soak in its unpredictable craziness and stumble out of the cinema dazed, dazzled and confused.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Be afraid... be very afraid.
Directed by Ari Aster.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Parker Posey, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane.