Reeling from the death of his iconoclast mother, an emotionally stunted, mentally ill man must traverse to her funeral in Ari Aster’s oft-indescribable dark comedy, Beau is Afraid. Aster frames the journey as if he were Homer himself, making for a melodramatic and depraved comedy of errors turned familial nightmare, stuffed to the brink of bursting with pure orchestrated chaos. Shocking, subversive, and very often hilariously funny, the genre-defying A24 feature stars Joaquin Phoenix as the titular Beau, a man for whom the pressures of the world are quite overwhelming. The film plays like What About Bob as remade by the director of Hereditary, but as an Oedipal fever dream. It’s a lot thematically. It’s a lot structurally. It’s a lot from a performance-perspective. It’s just a lot of movie. And most of it is pretty brilliant.
Beau is Afraid is, in many ways, cinematic schizophrenia, somehow both anxiety-inducing and deliriously funny, fastened to a towering Phoenix performance that never wavers for a moments. My wife asked me if I “liked it “ after the screening and I found this a somewhat challenging question. Beau is Afraid is a movie that defies binary classifications such as “like” or “dislike”. But I found myself on its very distinct wavelength for a vast majority of its offerings, cackling in my seat – often louder than anyone else in the room, for what that’s worth – and that certainly must qualify as a “like.” But even thinking of this madcap opus as something to like or not seems to be minimizing its effect. Let’s set the scene.
A crime-plagued city block. The home of a suspect surgeon, his doting wife, and pill-popping teen daughter. The secluded woodland enclave of a traveling theater troupe. The funeral of a venerable woman. A cave of judgement. These are the locales where Aster unspools his one-of-a-kind flavor of zany existential black comedy. Each chapter is wholly distinct and shot as such. Though Beau travels from city dystopia to suspicious suburbs to a forest of pure magical realism, he remains a consistent source of high tension and crippling anxiety. A troubled guide through a variably decaying world.
When Aster declared that his next film would be a comedy, the world collectively raised its eyebrows. Though Beau is often uproariously funny, calling it a “comedy” is a stretch. It’s somehow greater than that – despite its sometimes glaring flaws.Beau is Afraid is a film that draws inspiration from sources as varied as What About Bob, Get Out, The Truman Show, The Stepford Wives, Station Eleven, Aster’s own Hereditary and Midsummer, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and many, many more. Aster’s direction evokes Lars von Trier in one scene, Charlie Kaufman in the next, Yorgos Lanthimos in another, and Spielberg at critical junctions. In lesser hands this could create all-out tonal warfare; but Aster keeps the whiplash to a minimum (for the most part), harnessing it to the crazed emotional turmoil of Phoenix’s dedicated performance.
Those looking for meaning in every encounter are certain to exit their first viewing of Beau scratching their heads. There’s narrative tangents, plot detours, structural pivots, tonal shifts. In its very conception, Beau is designed to disorient and provoke a feeling of visceral discomfort. It’s jarring at all times, a deeply unsettling and uncentering experience. But at its center, it’s very simple: this is the story of a deeply tormented mother-son relationship. It’s Oedipus Complex: The Anxiety Comedy.
What is real? What is a dream? And what is the waking nightmare of a man long suffering a twisted entanglement with his domineering mom? We are never quite certain – and that’s part of the puzzle. Another in Aster’s arsenal of directorial tactics to keep his audience completely off-kilter. Mileage will vary as to whether this ultimately makes the juice worth the squeeze, particularly as the closing moments are amongst the film’s most ostentatious, least crowd-pleasing in a film that’s decidedly not interested in pleasing crowds.
Despite brilliant craftsmanship and standout performances from the cast of comedy elites (Amy Ryan! Nathan Lane! Parker Posey! Richard Kind!), Beau is Afraid is still an extreme proposition for general audiences. Most viewers are going to be frustrated, annoyed, or flat-out outraged by Aster’s third feature film. Those expecting another Hereditary or Midsommar should be warned – this is not that. Beau is niche to the point of being actively anti-commercial; a bold middle finger to the very notion of the CinemaScore. But Aster has built up a loyal cult following in the past five years so it will be curious to see how they embrace a work that’s less traditionally, ahem, assembled. Or not.
The man truly does impress as much as he ever has as a technician, creating such vivid scenes of composed carnage that you’re left gawking at. How did he pull this off? But is all that chaos in service of something greater? That point is probably up for debate – and there will be plenty who leave the theater frustrated by the impenetrability of Aster’s WTF creation – a common muttering I heard amongst those leaving my screening. Opinions will vary wildly. Subjectivity rules the roost here. Had Aster had the editorial discipline to leave a chunk of the more self-indulgent moments on the cutting room floor, Beau might have been a masterpiece. And though it didn’t always work for me, when it hits, boy is it something special.
CONCLUSION: Ari Aster’s black comedy ‘Beau is Afraid’ is a wild swing – absolutely brilliant and hysterical in moments and completely self-indulgent and unnecessary in others. It’s bold, and singular, and mesmerizing. Joaquin Phoenix is predictably outstanding. Most will hate this. I loved the vast majority of it.A-Follow Silver Screen Riot on Facebook