Beau Is Afraid

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On release, Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid quickly became one of those contentious litmus tests for cinematic boundaries, creative freedom, and personal taste. The people that loathed the film called it the result of an indulgent director and a permissive studio. The folks that loved it cited pretty much the same. Either way, Aster, a rare talent with two cult film phenomena under his belt, delivered his first box office bomb.

Has the train of Hereditary’s success, which launched careers, brought Toni Collette the undying love of the horror community (yes she really did deserve at least Oscar notice), and then tore triumphantly through the sophomore station of Midsommar, to the tune of another screeching success, careened off the rails? Is Ari Aster a runaway train cursed to forever explain just what the fuck he was thinking with Beau Is Afraid?

I don’t think so.

Aster has been invoking confounded reactions since his debut in 2010. Hereditary after all, was hardly the most palatable crowd pleaser and its finale left sores from head-scratching. Midsommar was the most hetero-detrimental date night movie ever made and probably resulted in at least dubious side glances at emotionally abusive boyfriends. Like Barbie now, Midsommar incurred the wrath of scorned men everywhere. Yet both brought in the crowds and the resultant returns at the Box Office.

Beau is a different beast though. It’s a harder sell, a bigger swing, and a deeper shock to the system. Yet, it’s also one of the most rewarding experiences you can have this year. A lot of the blame can perhaps be laid at the relatively lackluster marketing campaign, which paled in the shadow of the Midsommar buzz. It’s also not an out-and-out horror film. Maybe a three-hour slice of anxiety-inducing absurdist comedy wasn’t quite what folk expected from the guy who gave us Hereditary.

Aster instead invites us to witness one man’s odyssey through a nightmarish refraction of contemporary life. Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is a normal, if anxiety-ridden, man living in a chaotic Hellscape city. After a shocking phone call turns his life upside down, Beau sets out on a cross country adventure littered with bizarre happenings and bonkers characters.

It’s a trippy Fear and Loathing-esque tumble through the American Dream with an intense, paranoid, caveat of dream logic and Freudian Farce. Aster steers us through a perverted parody of life, where everything that could go wrong for Beau, goes wrong in such a deranged way, it’s hard not to end up on the edge of your seat in the first ten minutes. I cannot enforce enough just how effortlessly Beau Is Afraid manages to conjure an intense feeling of discomfort and how whimsically it resurrects that feeling when we think we’re safe.

Phoenix is an incredible guide through this horror, as expected, and much of the film’s infectious unease is down to his innate ability to pull us in. As Beau, an initially paranoiac lead, encounters more and more archetypes of contemporary American life, the more normal he seems. Like, who wouldn’t be a shuddering wreck after being hunted, lost, abducted, losing their mother, privy to murder, audience to disorder, threatened, robbed, and the list goes on and on.

For all its hilarity and horror, though, Beau is Afraid is bizarrely sweet in its frankness. Aster ruminates on the core poetry of life and the dissonances which result – those things that bind us – by making them so utterly unavoidably present. It’s kind of his thing. Brutal honesty, the realization of our deepest anxieties, especially in relation to family, happiness, and our dreams. In a way, Beau is Afraid might be one of the most interesting films about the nature of love and friendship I’ve ever seen.

The casting of these colorful characters is on point too; Nathan Lane, Parker Posey, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Richard Kind, Hayley Squires (In the Earth), Julian Richings, Denis Menochet, it’s a smorgasbord of beloved and consummate character actors who all just fit into this camp landscape perfectly. Though special recognition goes to Patti LuPone, who delivers a powerhouse performance as Beau’s mother, a matriarch so diabolical and petty she make’s Norma Bates look like Mary Poppins. It’s one of the finest performances of the year and damn-near threatens to overshadow Phoenix’s own sizeable efforts.

It’s the innate strengths like LuPone’s performance, the work of cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Patchwork, Hereditary, Midsommar), the pitch perfect production design of Fiona Crombie (Cruella, The Favourite), and the incredible attention to staging, which culminate in a rapturous cinematic experience. Aster’s third film finishes somewhere between the intense transcendental odyssey of David Lynch, dayglow absurdity of Jim Hosking, early ingenuity of Terry Gilliam, and straight-talking brutalist trash of John Waters. Like an absurdist horror version of Oh Brother Where Art Thou! pushed through a Kafka-nator. It’s beautiful, inventive, pure, unadulterated cinema and another triumphant outing for one of the finest writer-directors working today.

For some, the goodwill bought by Aster’s meticulous fresh-faced first two films will find unsure footing on the rocky road of Beau Is Afraid. By its sinking, fatalistic finale, Aster could very well have pulled off the finest bit of anxiety-incitement in his career thus far. Sure, Beau is afraid but maybe, just maybe, so am I.


Scott Clark

Dir. Ari Aster

Stars. Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Parker Posey, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Richard Kind, Hayley Squires, Julian Richings, Denis Menochet

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