'Beau is Afraid': A Beautiful, Nightmarish Odyssey
After the one-two punch of 2018's Hereditary and 2019's Midsommar, Ari Aster solidified himself as one of our most ambitious and unique horror filmmakers working today. Both films were critically and financially successful, and helped A24 continue to grow in popularity. So it makes sense that A24 and Aster would partner up again for another film, and it would be a fair assumption that it would be another horror film. But Aster, being a bit of an unpredictable filmmaker, ends up delivering Beau is Afraid, a nearly three-hour epic about a man going on a strange, surreal journey to visit his mother. While it is unsettling and disorienting, much like Aster's previous films, the horror elements are more subdued and come from a psychological place. In fact, the film functions as more of a dark comedy, touching on mental illness, mother/son relationships, and repression, just to name a few of the many themes being kicked around here. It's a slight departure from Aster's last two features, but Beau is Afraid ends up being his most ambitious and beguiling film to date. It is guaranteed to split audiences, but it is a wonderfully nightmarish journey that I cannot help but admire.
Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) is an extremely anxious man who is preparing to visit his mother on the anniversary of his father's death. What should be a simple trip ends up becoming a strange, disturbing odyssey that sees Beau confront his deepest, darkest fears. There is a distinct dreamlike quality to the film, in that the people, situations, and locations that Beau finds himself in feel slightly removed from reality. The somewhat exaggerated elements of the film contribute heavily to its confounding nature, and puts us firmly in Beau's head. It allows us to feel the paranoia he is feeling at almost every moment of the film, which makes for a beautifully distressing experience.
As someone who has an anxiety disorder, I couldn't help but be struck by the way the film depicts it. It can often be oversimplified or come across as melodramatic, and very few films seem to capture the nuances of it. Thankfully, Beau is Afraid is among the few that portrays anxiety well. I really connected with the panic and neuroses that Beau feels throughout the film, and I felt a strange familiarity in the tense, fearful mood that Aster establishes. It's impossible to portray something like anxiety in a perfect way, given that it has different effects from person to person, but the way this film does it felt rather close to my own anxious episodes. It really nails the feeling of panic and guilt that comes with extreme anxiety, which made the film all the more resonant for me.
Between this and his last two films, I can confidently say that Ari Aster is a master of striking specific tones. This film is perhaps the most impressive instance of this, as he threads the needle between disturbing psychodrama and dark comedy with great precision. It takes a special kind of filmmaker to make something that is both horrifying and funny, but Aster is more than capable in this regard. This is certainly his most fascinating directorial effort to date, as he is not afraid to make some bold choices. The more absurd aspects of the film might be off-putting to some, but I was all-in on how they fit into the story Aster is telling. The film also sees him taking some cues from filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman and David Lynch, but while Aster's influences are clear, he certainly allows his own distinct style to shine through. The imagery that he crafts is so striking, and he uses the camera so perfectly throughout the film. It's clear that he had such a specific vision for the world of this film, and it feels so fully realized. You can truly feel Aster's passion this film, and he continues to prove himself to be one of our most exciting filmmakers. On top of that, the camera work is gorgeous, and the way it moves throughout the film is so electric. The production design is also incredible, as it is so detailed, yet massive, and feels so unique to Aster's sensibilities. Add in a stellar animated sequence from filmmakers Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña and you have one of the most visually stunning films of the year so far.
The script isn't as twisty or layered as Aster's previous films, but the straightforwardness of the narrative provides a great vehicle for him to explore the fears and emotions that many experience in their everyday lives. The prevailing feeling of guilt that Beau has all throughout the film is such an under-discussed element of anxiety, and ends up being a driving force of the film. We see Beau going through some horrible things just to get to his mother's house, and he is fueled by fear and his own guilt to overcome them. This informs his actions all throughout the film, and it flows throughout the entire story that Aster has crafted. Throughout Beau's journey, we see him dealing with general paranoia, but we also see how his relationship with his mother, particularly from when he was a kid, has had an effect on him as an adult. This element recurs numerous times throughout the film, before coming to a head in the third act. It's hard to get into this without spoiling anything, but the relationship between Beau and his mom is easily one of the most intriguing aspects of the film. The ebb and flow of this detail feels rather true to life, and watching the character of Beau confront this is quite compelling. There are so many smaller details of the script that I would love to dig into, but this film is best experienced knowing as little about it as possible, so I won't spoil anything here. What I will say, however, is that while the overall plot is somewhat simple, Aster explores so many fascinating ideas over the course of the film that are potent, and helps the audience connect with the character of Beau.
At the center of the whole film is Joaquin Phoenix, who gives what might be a career-best performance. Phoenix does a great job of nailing Beau's fraught mental state without overdoing anything. There is a slightly heightened quality to his performance, but that's more due to him properly matching the film's energy. Phoenix brings such specificity to the role, and he captures the complex range of emotions that Beau experiences so beautifully. He is perfectly suited to what the film is asking of him, and he is quite captivating. There is an honesty to his performance that drew me in, and helped keep me fully invested in the film. It's a phenomenal performance, and one of the best portrayals of anxiety I've ever seen on screen.
The supporting cast is also tremendous, especially Patti LuPone, who truly owns every moment she appears. She is rather intimidating, and has a commanding presence that washes over her scenes. It's a solid performance, and probably the biggest standout of the whole cast aside from Phoenix. I also enjoyed Nathan Lane's performance, which sees him playing against type as a more masculine, toned-down family man. Lane has an affable charm to him, but there is a simmering sinister energy that subtly reveals itself in a couple of moments. It's surprising to see him in this type of role, but he definitely nails it. Amy Ryan is also excellent, and plays the moodiness of her character so well. She has a similar charm to Lane in this role, but it is clear that it is a facade, and when she lets it slip, it allows her to do some of her most fascinating work to date. I also must shout out Zoe Lister-Jones who plays a younger version of Beau's mom. It's a rather small part, but she balances the complexities of the character nicely. The entire cast feels so locked into the tense, disturbing world of the film, and absolutely nail the specifics of their respective roles.
Beau is Afraid is bound to alienate some viewers, but for me, I was blown away by the spectacle of the film, as well as its smaller details and fascinating ideas. Ari Aster takes some massive swings here, and it is exciting to see him embracing the creative freedom he has been given here. I was truly left stunned by this film, and it really connected with me in some surprising ways. It's quite resonant, and so bold in its portrayal of fear and anxiety that it reached me in a way that few movies have. Some might write off the film as self-indulgent, nonsensical, or boring, but I absolutely adored it. It is the type of audacious, stunningly crafted film that doesn't come around that often, and it is upsetting and disorienting in the best possible way. Aster truly has a gift for filmmaking, and I am beyond excited for whatever he does next. This film is easily one of his finest achievements yet, and is a wild journey that I won't soon forget.