By Michael Yu, April 25, 2023
With “Beau is Afraid,” director Ari Aster releases his demons in a three-hour odyssean epic that explores guilt and anxiety. Contained within the film’s lengthy runtime is one of the most surreal, disturbing and somehow darkly hilarious films I’ve ever seen.
The premise starts off simply enough — Beau Wassermann, played masterfully by Joaquin Phoenix, is an anxiety-ridden man who sets off on an adventure to visit his successful corporate mother. However, the way this relatively simple premise unfolds can only be described as a nightmare that must be seen to be believed.
The first act of the film begins in a city that seems like a dark reflection of our own. There are dead bodies strewn around the streets, vulgar graffiti on every crevice, assault rifles being sold at street vendors stations and, hilariously, a naked serial killer called the “Birthday Boy Stab Man.” Whether these events were real or imagined by Beau’s paranoid mind is up for interpretation but the parallel to current real-world troubles is undeniable.
The rest of the film’s acts progressively become more and more surreal as Beau delves deeper into his own mind and conflicts. As the film progressed, I felt like I was watching Beau’s worst nightmares take form on the big screen.
In this film, Beau is, in fact, afraid — afraid of going outside, afraid of his medication and most importantly, afraid of his mother. Beau is hardly the protagonist audiences expect to see lead an entire film, especially one of such length. However, Phoenix’s endearing performance makes the audience feel sympathy toward someone who is so undeniably pathetic, as well as provide an anchor in the madness that unfolds.
Alongside Phoenix, both Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane deliver memorable performances as a caring couple who care for Beau after an accident. Their genuine nature puts them at odds with the rest of the film, creating a sense of discomfort and unease, even inside their pristine home. Both Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti LuPone deliver a seamless performance of the same character across different ages as Mona, Beau’s sinister and secretive mother.
Throughout the film, Aster’s signature sense of dread pervades every scene. Something as innocuous as getting water from a store turns into a horrific fever dream, as the audience find themselves trapped in Beau’s head alongside him.
The film is shot with an absurdist lens. Masterfully executed by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, numerous shots throughout the film are off kilter to throw off the audience and show Beau’s state of mind. There is also a memorable sequence that marries the world of live action and animation, creating a wholly unique visual style and furthering the feeling of watching a nightmare.
It is a miracle the films’ humor and fantastical horror find a way to not just coexist but combine to create the perfect blend. The film can shift from Beau’s worst fantasies becoming manifest to a particularly hilarious scene featuring Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” without missing a beat, due to Aster’s masterful directing. Seeing Aster take such risks in his biggest film to date was refreshing, especially with Hollywood currently stuck in a rut full of remakes, reboots and soulless cash grabs.
With its three-hour runtime and convoluted storytelling, audiences have been quick to call “Beau is Afraid” the work of a self-indulgent and pretentious director taking on more than he could chew, but I believe it is the result of a skilled director finally being given freedom to create the film he has always wanted to without restrictions.
In many ways, “Beau is Afraid” feels like exactly that – a passion project. Aster’s previous works, “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” while amazing, lack the wild imagination present in this film. In this film, its inventiveness and style grab you through the screen and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.
Films like “Beau is Afraid” are the ones that should be supported at theaters. Ones that take risks and innovate with the art form of filmmaking. Aster has created a surreal and compelling experience that will challenge the most experienced moviegoer, and I encourage anyone to see it while they can.
Feature image courtesy of Jackson Gray
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