Beau is Afraid Review:
Ari Aster, the unapologetic maestro behind the modern horror classics, Hereditary and Midsommar, is no stranger to divisiveness and bracing oddity. He’ll never be “the people’s filmmaker”, but it’s the absence of such an honour that unequivocally fuels his singular vision. Crafting experiences that unearth, and then prey on the most primal, deepest fears of man, all the while manifesting as poignant treatises on the human experience. His horror efforts immerse themselves in an abyss of trauma, utterly terrifying and daunting to undertake as they are wildly inventive and mesmerizing to behold.
While Aster’s horror classification often brazenly breaks the genre’s mold (Midsommar is a brightly lit, pastel-hued folk horror), his latest outing, Beau is Afraid is his greatest departure yet. A beautifully twisted, fairy-tale-like guilt trip that resides more in seriocomic territory but still emerges as a three-hour, nightmarish odyssey so unsettling and unnervingly intimate, audiences will be impelled into the same delirious state as its protagonist. This grim, amorphous epic about a loser’s journey to visit his overbearing mother eventually mutates into one of the most terrifying films Aster’s ever made, insane in all the best ways and so uncannily telling of our own inadequacies, it can only be seen to be believed.
The scares this time around are less creepily supernatural and more fantastically guttural, tightening its grip on the emotional baggage audiences bring with them into the theatre. It’s a deranged trek given momentum not by cause-and-effect, but through organized chaos. Shapeshifting through numerous genres and forms on a whim, continually nagging at our own insecurities until its madcap world becomes eerily familiar.
It’s an effect that is to be expected from the darkly idiosyncratic director. Imbued with a heaping sense of magical realism—that’s so warped it puts the Brothers Grimm to shame—Beau is Afraid sees Aster exploring many of the same themes but with a greater surrealist touch. His obsession with the volatile link between love and obligation, parentage and manipulation are on full display, abound with all the graceful, elegant flourishes that have since become his trademark. Yet here, another realm of extremity is uncovered, filtered through a hilariously morbid, colour book lens that feverishly expands a straightforward plot— a middle-aged virgin, Beau Wasserman (A phenomenal Joaquin Phoenix), journeys to his mother’s gilded home across a nation gone psychotic— into a mind-mutilating fantasy adventure that is best described as a Kafkaesque Wizard of Oz. A bleak, fairy-tale epic for the modern age.
Opening with a perversely magical in-utero perspective, Aster’s story literally bursts out from the dark recesses of a womb, casting its titular hero and the audience into the thresher of human existence. Each blaring wail from the newborn Beau not only pokes fun at the understatement of its title but helps us get accustomed to the existential terrors that will soon unfold. It then gives way to his life almost five decades later, where he’s a balding zeta male who is utterly terrified of the existence in front of him, carrying himself as if he’s still traumatized by the moment that commenced his tortured, guilt-ridden childhood. He’s so afraid, he barely musters the courage to answer a phone call from his mother, who he blames for his stilted demeanor in weekly meetings with his psychiatrist (Stephen McKinley Henderson).
Though that meekness and fear are thoroughly justified. He resides in an austere, ramshackle inner-city apartment that is awash with murderous, unhinged lunatics who hallucinate he’s blasting music in the dead of night and then pilfer his apartment like a horde of zombies. It’s only when he’s violently thrust away from his abode does his panic attack of a hero’s journey begins in earnest.
It’s an odyssey that operates according to its own crazed logic. Taking on a frenetic episodic structure that traverses further spiraling extremes, as it goes from time-shifting lunacy to striking hand-drawn animation in its second act to final revelations that flip an already mind-boggling experience on its head. It redefines itself with each bold swing, further plunging audiences in its slipstream of neuroses, where the only way to stay afloat is to embrace its radical nuttiness with open arms. In typical Aster fashion, clues and symbols are sprinkled about but their true meaning and connection to the bizarre events is a mystery best reserved for subsequent viewings— an endeavour that is all too inviting to undertake, especially given the rich spectacle its grotesqueries are embalmed in.
Pawel Pogorzelski’s layered cinematography renders Aster’s unflinching vision a lucid dream that somehow remains palpably real. The graceful compositions bask in both an eerie stillness and a rhythmic dynamism. Emanating a fable-like feel that is only emboldened by a looming, penetrating perversity. Close-ups sting with an off-putting, textural quality, while the breathtaking wides further envelop us in its off-kilter, anxiety-driven world. Its unsettlingly skillful use of negative space brilliantly juxtaposes its soft-hued, storybook palette against unimaginable sights that will forever sear themselves into the mind of unsuspecting viewers (the least of which includes a phallic monstrosity).
However, much of the story’s resonance can be attributed to Joaquin Phoenix’s incredibly subtle, chameleonic turn as the eponymous schlub. He anchors the film’s circus of horrors directly on his visage, exploding with profundity not only in moments of panic but surrender. As Phoenix powerfully articulates Beau’s submission to his feelings of fear, guilt, and shock— cathartically personifying a pitiful creature that only grows more pathetic by the minute. Phoenix’s uncanny ability to embody such an atavistic entity, who’s nullified into a shell of a man by the film’s end, is equal parts moving and riveting. Sure to provoke many into an unwanted vicarious association.
The film’s rotating funhouse of supporting performances is equally potent. Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan as creepy suburbanites who care for Beau are clear standouts. While Kylie Rogers as their deeply damaged daughter is a combustive delight. Patti LuPone, Parker Posey, and Richard Kind are all final act highlights that leave a significant impact despite their transitory roles.
Though its three-hour runtime does begin to blunt its impact as it comes to a close— repeating many of the same beats— Beau is Afraid is a visionary epic that never fails to shock and awe in a picturesque manner. Its guilt-trip gauntlet is wholly relentless, testing the limits of even the most seasoned viewer. Yet, amidst the encompassing delirium, lays a fable that mournfully and boldly navigates the all-consuming nature of preoedipal guilt, and the broken adults it leaves in its wake—who have little choice but to surrender to a cold, cruel world. Ari Aster’s risky swing for the cinematic fences is a nightmare that will fondly be remembered for years to come.
– Prabhjot Bains