I don’t think anyone should be shocked that Ari Aster’s latest outing is so polarizing, dividing both critics and general audiences alike. By now you should own what you’re in for when you sign up for an Aster outing, and while that doesn’t absolve his work from criticism, the blame is on you for showing up to “Beau is Afraid” thinking it’s going to be anything other than weird and affronting. With a 3 hour runtime, you should probably go in to this knowing that the film is his most audacious and indulgent outing to date. Again, I am not saying that “Beau is Afraid” is flawless, or that a director is exempt from anything, but being angered and surprised by the obvious is a bad take. You get what you give and Aster has always had no interest in tailoring his filmmaking to the whims of film twitter, and my god does he double down here, almost to a fault. “Beau is Afraid” is a surrealist episodic journey through vibrant nightmarish hellscapes, a film that purposefully distorts its POV to manifest the sense of dread and anxiety beyond their thematic framework and into the literalization of its own bizarre odyssey.
Written and directed by auteur filmmaker Ari Aster (“Hereditary,” “Midsommar“), “Beau is Afraid” is his third and largest film to date across the board, from scope to ideas to budget. The film marks the largest budget of any A24 film to date, sitting somewhere between $30-40 million. In its most basic form, the film follows Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) a middled aged man plagued with anxiety and general fear of everything. He is set to visit his mother for the anniversary of his father’s death (which also happens to be his birthday according to Beau). After oversleeping and panic packing, he misses his flight through a series a misfortunate events. Dead set on making the trip, he sets out on the perilous journey home and encounters one nightmare scenario after another. A man with extreme anxiety trying to visit his mother sounds like the lamest elevator pitch even for A24, but Aster purposefully has more than one ace up his sleeve to add layer after layer to this tale. “Beau is Afraid” works best when you know as little as possible, so for the sake of spoilers I’ll keep the synopsis as vague as possible, too.
Aster has always been a filmmaker hellbent on exploring doomed and tortured characters, and using the themes of family, guilt, and (for some reason) decapitation as his primary thematic vehicles. “Beau is Afraid” is simultaneously his most confusing and his most straightforward film so far, saddled only by his own unfettered indulgence and unencumbered ideas across the film’s boisterous runtime. I am a huge proponent of taking movies back to 90 minutes, and bemoan the new standard of 2 and half hours for films that simply don’t need to be that long. At nearly 3 hours, Aster is skilled enough in his execution to keep things moving along even through some lulls in the second and third acts. The paranoid, fear mongering world he creates throughout each portion of the film resonates deeply for willing viewers, creating unsettling tension and mesmerizing anxious, torturous scenarios that never let up even if you’re unable to tap into its wavelengths. And make no mistake: Aster is incredibly purposeful in what he is trying to accomplish even if its doesn’t all come together as well as he may have intended.
He’s said as much, and has commented on his acute awareness of the backlash and divisive nature of his film. “Beau is Afraid” is to anxiety and mommy issues as “Babylon” is to filmmaking and old Hollywood. I’m much more favorable of “Beau,” despite not really having crippling anxiety to the point of creating a world around me that may or may not exist or having a devastating, dehibilitating relatonship with my mother. I’m not subscribed to the belief that you need to have both of these things to fully understand what is happening onscreen. Aster creates a world that consistently blurs the line between reality and fabrication, and the longer it goes on the more surreal and absurd it gets. “Beau is Afraid” is easily the most A24ish film of A24 films, more tense then “Uncut Gems,” more satirically surreal than “Spring Breakers,” and yes, more bizarrely phallic than “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Without being able to go in to what works and what doesn’t, I can say that while I’m not fully inclined to call “Beau is Afraid” a masterpiece, it is not the abomination others would have you believe.
It is a film that sometimes excels past its own ambition, and sometimes crumbles under the weight of it, collapsing in on itself. Nothing works without Aster behind the camera, who commands his vision (sprawling as it may be) with deeply personal precision and seems overconfident in his abilities to bring his bold ideas to life. If “Beau is Afraid” was in danger of drowning completely, it is saved more often than not by Jaoquin Pheonix, who once again gives a committed performance that shoulders the strange with impeccable talents. The world of “Beau is Afraid” exists in two planes; what’s happening and what is happening inside Beau’s head, and Phoenix confidently relishes in these blurred lines with his performance. It’s as if Aster and Phoenix believe two different versions of the same story, and instead of trying to force on into the other they coexist in nightmarish coalescence of guilt driven anxiety. Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan are terrific comedic additions, and of course Patti LuPone delivers another tour de force performance. There’s no weak link in front of the camera, with everyone all in on everything. Oh, shoutout to Parker Posey. She’s a real one, a real MVP, and is completely in on the joke with her and her character here.
It is challenging to truly process “Beau is Afraid” in one sitting, and I don’t know that I’m all that willing to take the plunge again so quickly. But while Aster’s demand for patience serves as a litmus test of fandom that may be stretched too far for its own good, “Beau is Afraid” is an undeniable piece of filmmaking. Even if all of his ideas don’t always work, Aster proves that he knows he way around the camera and gorgeously frames this fever dream nightmare with command, control and astounding cinematography. It very well may be a bad film when the dust settles, but one can’t say that it isn’t well made. It is bold, wild, weird, torturous, and yes, funny, with things happening in the third act that gives most A24 films a run for their money in terms of absolute batshit crazy visuals.
I don’t know who I could recommend “Beau is Afraid” to. It most certainly isn’t for everyone by design, with an almost smug alienating intention at its center. It’s as if Aster needs to prove he’s the smartest man in the room with every frame. It’s not quite as brazen as I just described, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling an overwhelming sense of disappointment and confusion with an inner monologue shouting “what the fuck did I just watch?” But for who it IS for, for those willing to sit with its themes and try to put the puzzle and pieces together themselves are rewarded with a truly audacious, well-crafted nightmare fuel journey through crippling emotional damage, anxious world building, and mommy issues.
I’ll say this: “Always Be My Baby” by Mariah Carey hits different now.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“Beau is Afraid” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.