BEAU IS AFRAID
FILM REVIEW: BEAU IS AFRAID
Release Date: 19th May 2023
Directed by: Ari Aster
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane
Written by: Ari Aster
Cinematography: Pawel Pogorzelski
``a bad case of Shyamalanasyndrome``
Third time is anything but a charm for Ari Aster, as the filmmaker falls foul of the same problems that plagued Jordan Peele’s recent third feature, Nope. Sadly, Beau Is Afraid has a bad case of Shyamalanasyndrome.
Here, Aster has abandoned the horror trappings that made Hereditary and Midsommar such delights. Instead, we get a surreal, lengthy character study on quite an unpleasant character. The exceptional Joaquin Phoenix is Beau Wasserman, an obsessive, anxious with serious mother issues. Beau has planned a trip to visit his mother (a ferocious Patty LuPone) to mark his father’s anniversary (Oedipus much?), but things immediately start to go wrong.
Beau’s neighbourhood resembles a hellmouth straight out of Hieronymous Bosch, or John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. Corpses are left to rot in the street, and a naked maniac called “Birthday Boy Stab Man” runs around arbitrarily stabbing people. A series of mishaps result in a feral mob ransacking his apartment, and Beau running into the street naked into the path of an oncoming truck. From there, he’s subjected to a series of increasingly bizarre situations, including prosthetic testicles, Mariah Carey, a giant penis monster, and the most uncomfortable love scene outside of a leaked Donald Trump sex tape. So far, so very A24.
Every conceivable thing goes wrong for Beau, but not in any sort of conventional sense. Even the simplest interaction ends in disaster, sometimes because of Beau’s inherent awkwardness, but often because each and every character that inhabits this world is so unreasonable and odd. Are these slings and arrows real, or imagined? It’s impossible to say, as Beau is a textbook example of an unreliable narrator. However, it’s entirely possible that everything that transpires is not a figment of his overanxious, catastrophizing imagination. And that is terrifying.
Beau is Afraid is a tragedy in four acts. The first half is terrific. There’s a plot pivot at the 45-minute mark where Beau finds himself in the overly-protective care of Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane’s disturbingly normal and vaguely sinister couple. Following another pivot at the 90-minute point, marked by a prolonged animated sequence, it becomes apparent that Beau has been set on a big old Joseph Cambell-style Hero’s Journey. It’s also at this point that patience begins to wear thin, and all of the goodwill established during the first half is slowly squandered. From here on, the movie loses its way, never to find its way back on track. But there’s more to come. Oh, so much more.
Signs that appeared in the background in the first act begin to pop up again later on, and begin to take on a greater significance as things progress. No doubt a second viewing would answer a lot of questions, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to sit through Beau Is Afraid more than once. There’s no big hidden meaning to any of this. It just is. Aster’s third movie doesn’t have much to say for itself, but oh lordy, it takes its sweet time not saying it. Few movies need to be longer than 100 minutes, and Beau Is Afraid is not one of them. Clocking in at an incredible 179 minutes, this is an arse-numbing monster of a movie. I’ve been to shorter weddings.
After two hours it’s tempting to cut your losses and walk out, but then you’d miss the last twenty minutes, which is when things go proper bonkers (Aster really has a thing about attics. And Mothers).
Aster is now in the enviable position of having the creative freedom to create whatever he wants without studio interference. But as Damien Chazelle recently proved with Babylon, this is not always a good thing. The problem is that Aster doesn’t appear to have made any choices. At all. Scenes that could have easily been dispatched in ten minutes instead take twenty, with no creative or artistic reason for this heel-dragging apart from testing the patience of his audience. This is a movie you will start to hate the longer it goes on.
Beau is Afraid could have easily been a masterpiece. It wouldn’t have taken much; a little cut here, a different choice there, and this could have been every bit as brilliant as his previous work. But Aster doesn’t cut anything. It’s all been kept and thrown into the mix. And therein lies the problem. As things stand, this is a bloated, unwieldly, self-indulgent mess, with little to recommend.