Ari Aster skirts the line between madness and brilliance with his latest feature Beau Is Afraid
Joaquin Phoenix stars in the latest mind-bending film from Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar,) throwing himself bodily (very bodily infact) into this genre defying, plot eschewing piece of insanity from risk taking indie turned megahit studio A24. Aster himself has said he couldn’t believe they gave him the money to make this film, and by the end of Beau Is Afraid’s bum numbing 3 hour run time you’ll be in awe of that decision yourself.
Phoenix is the titular Beau, a soft-spoken recluse in his 40s who inhabits a disturbing alternate reality in which society seems to have nearly fallen apart. Naked murderers and violent drug addicts stalk the street outside his rundown apartment, all the while venemous spiders and angry neighbours make his safe haven a living hell. Is it hallucinatory? Beau seems to be well within his rights to be afraid of this cruel outside world, yet Beau Is Afraid leaves behind the surface horrors to explore the much more personal cause of one timid man’s anxieties.
The film opens with a simple enough premise; Beau telling his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) that he is leaving later that day to go and visit his mother (Patti LuPone) to spend time with her on the anniversary of his fathers death. Both the therapist and his mother doubt he will ever actually make it, sure that his fear and some unfounded guilt will hold him back. The audience then follow Beau over the course of a week as he undertakes an epic journey to get back to his mothers house as a host of surreal characters help and hinder him along the way.
Where Aster has previously been known for out and out horror, Beau Is Afraid is surprisingly imbued with a dark humour, laugh out loud funny at times it’s first act is a satisfying satire packed full of clever sight gags that celebrate the absurdity of the plot. At the same time there is no doubt that this movie is absolutely depraved. Aster packs it with shocks aplenty; it has the visceral violence of a gory slasher film combined with more unsettling nudity than a raunchy comedy.
The problem is that as we descend into the absurdly long run time where Beau the character starts to find his way, we the audience really start to lose ours. An overlong second act that sees him confront his demons surrounding relationships, family and sex is confusing at best and boring at worst as this mess of hang ups is explored through a series of flash backs and fantasies.
There’s an air of classical legend to it, a hint of a suggestion that Beau is like a character facing Hercules’ labours or Sir Gawain’s trials. But the film fails to render then seriously or to really challenge us with answers to any big questions. It feels like an imitation Kaufman or Lynch. Often what should be shocking just feels silly, and ultimately like the person really on trial is the viewer as Aster seeks to find out just how much ridiculousness we’re willing to put up with.
There are nuggests of something good amongst all this absurdity – the question of who Beau’s mother is and what the hell she did to him as a child is an intriguing one hinted at in flashbacks that overhang all of the messier surrealism. When the snarling, vitriolic Patti LuPone finally appears on screen she is an absolute scene stealer, counterpointing the 3 hours of flat mumbling from Joaquin Phoenix wonderfully. We are afraid of her, very afraid; yet even their final confrontation somehow becomes ridiculous just when we think the film has something serious to say.
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If someone had cut out the central 90 minutes of Beau Is Afraid there could have been a decent film here. There’s some brilliantly rendered scenes throughout but the real effective moments are at the start and end, with a whole lot of frustrating nonsense in the middle. I can’t be mad about it, sometimes a big swing results in a big miss and this is an awfully big swing for a mainstream audience. We just have to hope that Aster is allowed to bounce back to continue making such daring projects, because if nothing else Beau Is Afraid has serious balls (… and I’m not just speaking metaphorically.)
Beau Is Afraid is out in UK cinemas on 19th May 2023