July 28, 2023

BEAU IS AFRAID...and Exhausting

2023 / 179 min
Review by Fluffy the Fearless😼

It didn’t really concern me much to learn that Ari Aster’s next effort was not gonna be a horror film. Even though Hereditary and Midsommar are two of the best (and most disturbing) horror movies of the past ten years, it was the overall aesthetic, deliberate pacing and tone that lifted them above the fray. Surely someone like Aster could apply his unique style to other genres.

His stamp is all over Beau is Afraid, and if anyone thought Midsommar was “out there,” this one will redefine the word for you. Surreal, a little self-indulgent and really, really long, it definitely re-establishes the director as an acquired taste. Depending on the viewer, that’s either a good thing or a bad thing.

Aster’s visual and narrative peculiarities don't gel as well in Beau is Afraid as his two previous films, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth seeing. There are moments of brilliance that are intense, disturbing, comedic and thematically rich…all anchored by another compelling performance by Joaquin Phoenix as the title character. But it’s just as often baffling, pretentious, heavy-handed and way too meandering. And at three hours, the film is ultimately exhausting.

Beau is a middle-aged man who lives alone in a squalid apartment and suffers from extreme anxiety. When we meet him, he’s preparing to fly back home to visit his estranged mother, but she suddenly dies before he even leaves his apartment. Now he needs to make it back in time for the funeral, which turns into an arduous journey. Of course, that plot description is rudimentary at best. The story is presented in four distinct acts, and at no time are we certain if what Beau experiences (or the oddball characters he encounters) are real, products of his anxiety or metaphors for feelings of guilt regarding his mother.

Mr. Sunshine.

Beau is Afraid opens like gangbusters, the first half-hour perfectly - often amusingly - representing Beau’s anxiety through imagery and his reactions to what he perceives is going on around him. However, the second act, where he’s recovering from a car accident in a strange family’s suburban home, totally kills the momentum. Though certainly bizarre, the sequence goes on forever without ever establishing any real relevance to the overall story (though a couple of flashback sequences provide a bit of ominous foreshadowing). 

But the third act, where Beau meets a group of forest-dwelling theater performers, is a masterwork of surrealism that ranks among the best sequences Aster ever created. Enhanced by some gorgeous animation, this is where we gain the most insight into Beau’s psyche and empathize with the depressing state of his life. Aster briefly returns to psychological horror for the final act, when Beau finally makes it home, but too late for the funeral. Without giving too much away, it’s this sequence that fans of his other films might appreciate most, though I personally thought it was a little overwrought.

After all is said and done, we still don’t know quite what to make of Beau. Is he the protagonist? The Antagonist? Did we just sit through three hours of a character’s self-persecution or a director’s self-indulgence? Exacerbated by a deliberately ambiguous denouement, Beau is Afraid plays like an endless fever dream with the intention of inducing the same level of anxiety experienced by its main character. Visually and thematically, the film has too much going for it to be completely dismissed, but damn…a little extra time in the editing room would have been a good idea (like cutting out most of the second act).




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