Anxiety and guilt are real. But never before have those feelings been visualized on the big screen quite like in Ari Aster's new film Beau Is Afraid. This turbulent journey into horror with flashes of dark comedy is unlike anything that's ever been released. Tackling these frightening components in such a way could go in many different directions, but with Aster at the helm and Joaquin Phoenix front and center, Beau Is Afraid is a film operating under its own terms with a severe haunting effect that lingers. What an experience, for better or worse - and in IMAX no less.
What is it exactly that Beau Is Afraid of? The simple answer is anything and everything with sex hitting a keynote in that mix. Aster, the director of Hereditary and Midsommar comes to Beau Is Afraid without that simplistic narrative that served his previous horror films. Beau Is Afraid is in a category all by itself set within three acts, each with an hour to further its story. Beau (Phoenix) is a kind man who is afraid to do anything or really talk with anyone. It's as if Aster wanted to show What About Bob? navigate a hellish landscape in a hardcore R-rated film that translates later into a Hobbit-sized journey similar to an Odyssey from O'Brother Where Art Thou. In fact, Beau Is Afraid comes across as if O'Brother Where Art Thou, What About Bob?, and Raising Arizona had a three-way that resulted in a demonic child with existential issues that asked complex questions right out of 2001: A Spacy Oddysey if it only were all set in all levels of hell. That's really what Beau Is Afraid wants to convey.
How Aster arrives with his results is something of a different matter entirely. The first act of the film plays out like a far-out, extremely scary horror movie about a man's anxiety and fear literally attacking him in physical form. It's the scariest part of Nightmare on Elm Street mixed with Mad Max as Beau receives a call to visit his mother. A simple trip to the convenience store across the street might as well be on the moon to Beau as anything outside is trying to kill him and how Aster reveals these fears is pure blissful horror. In its second act, Aster allows room to breathe and gives everyone a half-time break as Beau crosses paths with a commune in the forest who have erected a stage to act out a play. Soon enough, Beau realizes the complete strangers are acting out a play about his present life and future life, which then sets in motion a big What If? chapter in the film of maybe how Beau could have lived his life if it weren't for his crippling fears and anxiety. It's sweet to see but is entirely too long and stale to keep invested.
This moves everything into the main event, its third act where Beau confronts his past head-on, his fears and anxieties, and his mother (the perfect Patti Lupone). Everything comes out and all is revealed in a subtle way that results in Beau's guilt attacking him after he's conquered his anxiety. It's a vicious and exhausting cycle that is perfectly shown on screen. The flaw is that the three-hour runtime feels longer. Aster is a genius. And maybe someday down the road, this movie will be praised and talked about in a different light, but the pacing and some of the artistic choices, and slow, long stretches needed to be trimmed way down to serve the main purpose of the story. Then again, would Beau Is Afraid play the same way and have the lingering effect that it does without those elements? Only time will tell, but as for now, a good sixty minutes could be taken out and the film could well be better for it.
Aster set out to make a fantastically dense movie and he has succeeded in that. Why is anything in this movie? What does it serve? Why are there moments that jump a giant shark and others feel naturally dramatic and scary? Aster wants to place Beau at the center of all these feelings of fear, guilt, and anxiety to see if he emerges victorious at the end of the day. Just like in the real world, humans want to survive and be gentle and peaceful, but these ugly monsters rear their heads in the forms of fear and anxiety and its how everyone deals with it and comes back from those choices to get out and strive for something better is what sets Beau and everyone else apart.
There's no doubt Beau Is Afraid will have people talking for years to come about the ins and outs of its story and visuals. The acting from everyone with a spotlight on Lupone and Phoenix is top-notch and deserves awards. Aster is on another playing field with his camera and script. There is so much happening on screen at any given moment that at times, it's hard to focus on all the stories being told, the Easter Eggs to his previous films, and the characters of what it all means. It's as if twenty directors were making this movie, but in fact, there's only one Ari Aster with maybe 1,000 voices in his head crying out at once here.
This is not for everyone, but Beau Is Afraid challenges every single person to watch it. Some will enjoy it and some will hate it. Beau Is Afraid is a film that won't be in a playlist anytime soon here, but upon a long marination period, this movie will be welcome with open arms and to new interpretations. This is a movie that will no doubt dole out intense conversations for better or worse. And for this movie Ari Aster, Thank you and #$*! you.
For Aster Fans Only