Ari Aster’s ‘BEAU IS AFRAID’ – A Divisive Vision

If your central complaint about modern cinema is that we live in a world of sequels, prequels, requels, reboots, and a general sense of unoriginality, allow me to introduce you to Beau is Afraid. With his third feature, Ari Aster challenges the audience in a way not often seen in a mainstream release. While Hereditary and Midsommar are far from your generic horror films, they are accessible to most fans of the genre. Beau is Afraid, on the other hand, is an art installation designed to force engagement and analysis as it unfolds.

Beau is Afraid is a relentless acid trip of repression, guilt, discovery, and menace – The Babadook meets The Guilt Trip set in modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah with the visual sensibility of Van Gogh. Aster reminds me a bit of Kubrick in that everything you see on screen is excruciatingly intentional despite the lack of context or explanation, constantly showing us more than we can fully embrace with the fleeting seconds an image is on the screen. People will also hate this movie upon release, much like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining before it. Call it recency bias, but I feel like this movie will still be on the tips of people’s tongues far into the future, whether in a good or bad light will be a personal call though.

I’m not going to dive too deep into the plot of Beau is Afraid as it is better left for the journey to be experienced from a blank slate. The simple version is middle-aged Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) misses a flight to visit his domineering mother (played by both Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti LuPone as the younger and older versions) and proceeds to try navigating his way across an elaborately anarchistic world to his childhood home. The journey is as unnerving as it is surreal. Beau traverses environments ranging from deadly to whimsical; there is a stop-motion sequence tucked in the middle of the hefty 3-hour run time that is stunning regardless of where you are with the film at the point it arrives. The supporting cast is great; Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, and Parker Posey all bring authenticity to their characters that allows them to be memorable in minimal screen time.

Aster has a deep bag of filmmaking tricks, and they are all on display in Beau is Afraid, with each set piece feeling unique enough that, from a technical level, you could think this was an anthology of sorts, following one character through the visions of different directors. The dream weaving quality of the finished product is far too personal for that though; this is clearly one man’s neurotic opus. We are disarmed as an audience as we are shown the horrific without being horror, being made to laugh out loud without any semblance of a joke, and finding dread where hope should be and rarely the opposite.

While I did enjoy the experience of Beau is Afraid, there are plenty of problematic elements as well. While it’s a marvel from a technical standpoint, the meat and bones of the story is an angsty tale of a white man from privilege facing his decades-long duality of being combative with his mother while also desperately seeking her approval. It’s as self-indulgent as a $35 million production can be and the target audience is… I’m not sure who this is for beyond the A24 and Arthouse crowds.

Beau is Afraid falls into that weird category of movie I thoroughly enjoyed and will probably seek out multiple viewings of before it leaves theaters but can’t really widely recommend it due to how inaccessible it is to a wide audience. The people that were on board with this project when it was four hours long and called Disappointment Blvd. will most likely be excited with the end result, whereas the casual viewers there for the new Joaquin Phoenix movie will most likely mirror the poor girl in my screening that was having some kind of audible breakdown by the time we’re thrown some wild third act twists. Aster has cemented himself as one of the most influential directors in the game with Beau is Afraid and his next project is being lined up as a western that will reunite him with Phoenix. While I do hope that movie is a bit more cohesive than this effort is, Beau is Afraid will go down as one of the most unique film experiences on this side of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.

About Donnie Keller

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