Ari Aster’s 3rd feature film is one of the strangest movies in recent memory. Often, it is enjoyably strange. Sometimes, it is perplexing and vehemently reticent as the navel-gazing gets too much to bear. But ultimately, Aster’s latest is unapologetically a glimpse into his psyche, although there’s only so far he wants to go before the emotions and the admissions get too raw. Beau is Afraid almost never occupies the space and time of our reality. Instead, it’s trapped in an augmented existence, almost on the fringes of the universe. Imagine A Serious Man mixed with About Schmidt, Being John Malkovich, Synecdoche New York, and a sprinkle of The Truman Show. To some, this bending of surrealism will come across as nonsense. However, I think Aster would argue that much of our nonsense is where the great pain is buried.
The titular Beau, the one that’s scared and stuff, is brought to life by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix is an enigmatic figure in his own right, one who’s gone through a very public personal tragedy and come out on the other side as one of the most gifted actors in the world. He imbues Beau with suffocating dread, as you can just see the disappointment on his face at all times. He confesses to his therapist that he’s planned a trip to visit his wealthy mother, but Beau has yet to confront the baggage that has made this such an uncomfortable trek. As Beau prepares to take the courageous step to see old Mom, one bizarre mishap after another puts the reunion in jeopardy. However, maybe Beau prefers it that way.
As you can imagine, what makes this such a nebulous narrative to follow is Beau’s mental state; he is our POV character, but his grasp on reality seems perilous. During an eventful sequence, Beau is perturbed by a series of messages from a neighbor imploring him to turn his music down. Except, Beau isn’t playing music, and there’s no party going on. But eventually, a party does appear out of nowhere, as if Beau had just dropped back into reality. Maybe he wrote those notes but was too timid to send them out. Maybe the party is taking place at another time entirely, or perhaps Beau’s medications are making his thoughts incomprehensible. Meanwhile, the state of the “world” is in disarray as crime has reached absurdist extremes. Like, there’s a nude guy that’s shanking everyone, parts of the town are on fire, and I can count on one hand the number of citizens who aren’t stained in blood.
Fragments of this plotline remind me of a film from Aster’s contemporary, Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). Both movies appear to be straining to say something worthwhile about the state of homelessness in society, although it’s of much smaller importance to the plot in Aster’s feature. Beau’s family is well off, but he lives like a slob in a dump of an apartment. Yet, he displays anxiety towards the seemingly homeless, as if they’re going to take his life from him. That converges with the film’s uneasy relationship with drugs – Beau’s prescription pill intake is partially responsible for the surrealist events we see depicted before us, and the use of drugs has also taken its toll on his little town. He’s a lonely man, lost in a wilderness whose inhabitants are also off the beaten path. I’d be afraid too.
However, Aster’s insistence on shrouding the backstory to this narrative in secrecy will put off a lot of viewers. For, people do like mysterious films where it’s not entirely clear what’s going on… but the audience does have a breaking point. Beau is Afraid has a three-hour runtime yet doesn’t give you much in terms of answers until nearly the very end. A more audience-friendly movie will at least give the viewer morsels along the way, something to keep general audiences invested in what’s going on without making them feel like idiots for not “getting it.” Nonetheless, what I take away from the movie, other than its many themes, is that this is not a film where the enjoyment is derived from knowing perfectly well what the plot is attempting to communicate at all times. Instead, Beau is Afraid is a movie that emphasizes its moments, and if you don’t vibe with it on a scene-to-scene basis, then it’s going to be a rough time.
Luckily, Ari Aster is such a skillful artist behind the camera that Beau is Afraid is continuously fascinating, even as it takes its sweet ass time to get to its biggest moments. Aster teams with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski to create a tapestry of artful images and movement. From blissful animated imagery and miniature designs to violent encounters captured with dizzying camera movements. There’s literally a fight in a bathtub in this movie, and the way it’s filmed allows you in on what it would look like from your POV in such an altercation. Contrast that with a lovely and intimate moment, which sees an adolescent Beau having a memorable discussion with his mother (Zoe Lister-Jones) as neon highlights illuminate her face. The acting across the board features a litany of veterans doing strong work, from scene-chewing turns by Patti LuPone & Parkey Posey to more grounded performances from the likes of Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nathan Lane, and Amy Ryan. On an unrelated tangent, I adore Lane’s comically large coffee mug, which is almost as big as his head. What is he pouring in there, the whole pot?
Yet, despite these superlatives, I can’t shake the thought that Beau is Afraid is the director’s weakest film, trailing more successful dramatizations in Hereditary and Midsommar. It’s not for lack of ambition, as Aster’s latest is also his most daring in multiple ways. The overall point of this portrait is to illustrate a man whose upbringing coaxed him into a mindset of fear. That a domineering parentage can cripple the mind and spirit, fostering an individual that is not only afraid of his family but every stranger that inhabits the world. As some might guess, these mental blocks extend to the title character’s sex life… or lack thereof. As a result, Aster’s story ends up questioning many of the typical solutions we see offered for mental health crises, including prescription drugs and therapy.
However, what ails the film isn’t a dilemma of if these themes are interesting story threads, but does Beau is Afraid make the dramatization of these ideas a worthwhile cinematic experience? There’s a point in this movie where Beau is inundated with a prophecy of how his life may turn out, and we later get to see this prophecy play out in real-time. Yet, I wasn’t moved by this tragic irony; what should feel like the most exciting portion of the movie ends up turning the viewer into a glum observer as the movie begins to resemble something of a research paper rather than a story that feels alive and is capable of eliciting excitement, dread, melancholy, fear, suspense, or inspiring thoughtful discussion. There’s so much of Beau is Afraid that is good, but the longer the film rambles on, the more your emotions begin to numb. I imagine that Beau would envy that feeling.