Ari Aster is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. After the sheer terror of Hereditary and the thematically rich layers of Midsommar, the man has earned the right to make whatever movie he wants. Beau is Afraid is certainly not lacking in ingenuity or creativity, yet the overwhelming amount of intense imagery and abstract meaning on display will likely find itself being embraced by some and shunned by others.
Initially titled Disappointment Boulevard earlier in its production, the titular Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely and extremely anxious man living in what might be the roughest neighbourhood put to contemporary film. The son of a wealthy businesswoman, Mona (Patti LuPone), he is attempting to leave his flat and go to visit Mona for the anniversary of his father’s death. Due to a mixture of fear and odd happenings, Beau ends up sleeping through his alarm, waking up to awful news. As he sets off to his mother, these odd happenings grow weirder and weirder, all with sinister undertones.
Trying to describe the general outline of the film is a challenge in itself, partially because we endeavour to avoid spoilers but also because it’s difficult to describe in the first place. Although it seems as though Aster, who is no stranger to studying the psychology of his characters, is keen to explore the parent-child dynamic and how pressurising it can be for one end or parasitic for the other. Where Hereditary and Midsommar utilised raw, even visceral emotional agony to convey their central themes, Beau is Afraid does not seem as straightforward, but not necessarily for the better.
Visually the film has plenty going for it. The production design is impeccable, evocatively conveying a sense of eeriness despite the various differences between each set. Beau’s flat is as dingy and barren as a flat in such a neighbourhood can be, with barely any space to think let alone live. Beau eventually finds himself in the company of a well-off family, its patriarch being surgeon Roger (Nathan Lane), whose bright walls and spacious environment is in direct contrast to Beau’s previous living conditions, and yet the same both spaces evoke the same sense of dread.
Each element of the production seems designed to reflect the mercurial anguish going on in Beau’s head. This mainly concerns his fears, his pent up anger and his grief. One such sequence includes an extended animated story in which Beau appears to imagine himself the hero of a play, thus envisioning himself as something greater than he is. The animated segment of the film is easily its strongest sequence, with the gorgeous colours and fluid art style. Here’s hoping that Aster one day chooses to create a whole film in this style.
Anchoring the content is a truly magnetic performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who is great at embodying all the intricate emotions of anxiety, desire and loathing that Beau is experiencing as he appears to slowly but surely lose his mind over the course of the story. There is a vulnerability in Phoenix’s performance that is hard not to admire, particularly when it is up against the formidable LuPone, whose commanding presence is felt throughout the film but not fully realised until she appears on screen. Their contrastingly extreme styles fit the extreme uncertainties that determine the film’s look and feel.
Yet, for all of the impressive spectacle and undeniably skilled filmmaking on display, one can’t help but feel it’s a tad self-indulgent. While the film is never not engaging, its focus on whether the film is about a sympathetic child/toxic parent or a hard working parent/ungrateful child is not always clear. Sometimes it even appears to be both. It’s certainly ambitious, but it sometimes feels as though it is being abstract for the sake of it as opposed to having thematic consistency. The three hour runtime certainly doesn’t help its case as the bizarre imagery and lack of consistent clarity does threaten to undo a lot of the good that the film is clearly relishing in. There is an evident consideration to theme, as is always the case with Aster, but the execution feels like it is having its cake and eating it too.
Beau is Afraid is the definition of divisive. With its abstract presentation, its weird but evocative visuals, and its humongous runtime, this is a prime example of a film that will either be loved or hated depending on your personal tastes. For this reviewer, there’s just enough compelling material in its craft and themes to endorse the overall film. It will especially appeal to those who enjoy movies that are not necessarily upfront about what their ambitions are. Although, even for this reviewer, this is a marked downgrade from the heights of Hereditary and Midsommar. It would be unsurprising if the film went on to become a cult classic with its dedication to its aims. For all its runtime and chaotic imagery, it is certainly never boring.
Beau is Afraid in cinemas May 19th
Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Amy Lane, Nathan Lane, Parker Posey, Stephen McKinley Henderson
Runtime: 180 minutes