Beau Is Afraid
Released: April 20th, 2023
Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Parker Posey
Family. According to the Fast and Furious franchise, it’s all you need. While Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto is positively defined by his ever-expanding family – blood or otherwise – protagonist Beau Wassermann in Beau Is Afraid exists over at the totally opposite point of family. If you’re like me, and you shamelessly enjoy the car-fu, anime-ish nonsense of the Fast films (from Five and onwards when they started getting good) and also the work of director/writer Ari Aster, you’re eating well this year. Fast X arrives this month, and the subject of this review landed in select cinemas back on April 20th. Obviously, these movies couldn’t be more different, and both portray two significantly differing takes on the concept of family; what it is, how it should act, and why it matters. So it’s very amusing to me, as a fan of both Fast and Aster’s films, that they arrived within close-release proximity of one another. It’s also funny to me that I’m entertained equally by them both.
At once a tragic comedy and comedic tragedy, Beau Is Afraid is a chaotic, confusing and surreal three-hour viewing experience. Like his two previous feature films, Hereditary and Midsommar, as well as his short films The Strange Thing About The Johnsons and Munchausen, this is a twisted family tale. (Readers with strained relationships with their mothers, especially – you’ve been warned!) To call it a sole horror flick feels off, though there are occasional horror elements present. Yet to label it a comedy or drama doesn’t give you the whole picture. It’s all of those things at once, creating an incredibly strange but fully unique movie that’s akin to a fever dream. It’s a film that will certainly not be for everyone – I actually assume many who read this will hate it – but those that it is for will discover a wild 179-minute ride that’ll keep you shocked and surprised. Right until the final minutes, peepers glued up at the big screen, I could never predict what tricks Aster was about to pull. This is a madman who is a master of his psychotic craft, and it’s a joy to witness.
Much like Matt Reeves’ terrific D.C. debut with The Batman, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s deeply touching 2021 drama Drive My Car, or S. S. Rajamouli’s over-the-top action-epic RRR, I don’t know what you’d cut here to shorten it. Also like those movies, Aster’s own sprawling subversion of The Hero’s Journey mono-myth absolutely earns, even requires, such a length for its plot and themes to land. Is it self-indulgent? Of course, but most films approaching or even surpassing the three-hour mark are, whether it’s Avengers: Endgame, Titanic, or 2 Avatar 2 Water (okay, that’s the last of the Fast references, I promise.)
Admittedly, I lied earlier. This ain’t only about family, but also trauma and mental health. This is an Aster film, after all. About what it does to you and to those around you. How trauma can essentially be passed from parent to child and how it shapes both parties. How it can create victims of circumstance and misinterpretation. How it warps people’s view of reality and of others. (This film should come with some sort of gaslighting warning, my god.) These are all at the core of Beau Is Afraid, a film that is entirely presented to us through the titular character’s POV, making it all the more impactful. When watching, if you think some awful shit is about to befall poor Beau, then yeah, it’s probably about to!
However, there are many other moving parts to this intense flick, so many other things that it’s exploring, about mental health, unconditional love, empathy, and even classism. This is a movie where however you feel about it, your own interpretation, is more or less valid. A film in which its own creator is highly unlikely to ever spill the beans about what it all meant. Like Robert Eggers‘ The Lighthouse and The Northman, this is one of those somewhat rare films where you could see it with two friends, and all three of you could arrive at three slightly different readings. I think that’s special. If you’re NOT someone who treats movies like they must always be a puzzle to be neatly solved, you will have an absolute blast with this. To be clear, neither of those approaches is wrong nor right, but Beau Is Afraid will definitely cater to, and satisfy, one of those crowds more than the other. Now, did it all make sense to me? Not fully, honestly, and I feel that that’s the point. Nonetheless, it’s a film I can’t stop thinking about, to say the very least.
Plot? I’ll keep it simple, as the less you know going in, the more intense – positive or negative – your reaction will be. So here’s the basic synopsis from IMDB: “Following the sudden death of his mother, a mild-mannered but anxiety-ridden man confronts his darkest fears as he embarks on an epic, Kafkaesque odyssey back home.” (Word to the wise, the keyword there is ‘Kafkaesque’.) What follows is so odd and hilarious, so cruel and sometimes even sadistic, as Beau’s misfortunes are delivered to him swiftly and almost always with a mean irony. Aster is the boxer, Beau is the punching bag. Though Aster really knows what he’s doing: he knows just when to shock you, right when to try and scare you, and yes, even when to make you scoff and laugh out loud.
In Dune, fear is the mind-killer. Beau Is Afraid takes that concept of crippling fear that must be battled to a disturbing end across our protagonist’s journey, to which main actor Joaquin Phoenix commits completely. Nude tussles and all. For yes, Beau is afraid, terribly so, but once you see the reality he experiences, you can’t really blame the guy. I really don’t want to say much more, as to avoid even any spoilers. I just hope you understand going in, should you choose to venture into this, you’re in for A LOT. So much so, in fact, that a second watch is a must if you finish Beau Is Afraid having liked it or were just simply intrigued. I, for one, cannot wait to revisit the madness once it hits streaming. (Which should be soon!)
As I mentioned, Phoenix sells this movie so well. Without him, it just wouldn’t work. He’s always been a solid actor, really. Whether it was in fun and endearing M. Night Shyamalan trash like Signs, a big blockbuster like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, or in dogshit like Joker (can’t wait to one day defend that opinion!). Phoenix embodies Beau’s debilitating anxiety and fears perfectly so. A role that actually feels like a more appropriate, unfair and brutal Joker arc than that of Arthur Fleck’s own. It’s super compelling, and most importantly, it’s convincing. Combine this stellar performance with Aster’s direction (a partly-animated segment really shines) as well as the film’s heightened editing and cinematography – thanks to Lucian Johnston and Pawel Pogorzelski, especially in the first half – it comes together so well. For me, anyway. Again, this one is absolutely going to divide people.
Much like David Prior’s hidden gem that was 2020’s The Empty Man (available on Disney+, stop sleeping on it), it’s so cool that a big studio – in this case, A24 – gave Ari Aster $35 million to seemingly make whatever strange shit he wanted. Because boy, did he ever! Aster’s style, and the sadistic glee he seems to find in putting his characters through hell, become more prominent with each new film he produces. He’s got his own thing going! It’s like the identifiably pitch-black comedy DNA through all of Martin McDonagh’s four films. Or, more recently, look at Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. That’s a James Gunn movie first, a Marvel film second, which is why it’s the best thing out of the MCU since Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange sequel, yet another instance of a director’s own unique style being front and centre. With this in mind, Beau Is Afraid is unmistakably a piece of ambitious Aster art.
Seeing Beau Is Afraid at the beautiful Regent Cinemas in Ballarat while it was still in theatres, certain scenes had me pushed back into my seat, uneasy and unsure of just what the fuck was about to happen. Certain scenes will make you angry, and others will have your stomach drop as if you and dear Beau are trapped in a horrific nightmare scenario. Other times, it had me chuckling aloud to myself in sheer disbelief at just what was unfolding. Truly, it’s the kind of cinema-viewing experience that sticks with you, and that’s the type of movie-going experience I cherish. There likely won’t be anything else quite like this big, bold and bizarre thing in 2023. Just maybe don’t watch this one with the family. (Boom! Another Fast reference, you can’t stop me.)
Film review by Alex Sievers.
Beau Is Afraid is set to be released on DVD/Blu-Ray in late August and we should see it streaming online in July.