Hollywood may be the land of dreams, but director Ari Aster works in the nightmare business.
If you imagine cinema’s most beloved feel-good movies – Love Actually, Amélie, Paddington 2 – existing at one end of the spectrum, Aster’s filmography sits leering back at you from the opposite end.
He doesn’t just churn out haunting forays into the macabre; his body of work offers a series of emotionally excruciating sojourns into human depravity. To put it bluntly: Aster is a horror master with a PhD in the school of mind-f*!k.
Some people love his movies, while others detest them. The common theme is that nobody walks away from an Ari Aster film feeling cool, calm, and collected.
Beau Is Afraid is the writer-director’s wildest film yet, and likely his most divisive. It’s a bonkers three-hour fever dream that spits in the face of anyone hoping for something even slightly mainstream.
The film features After Hours’ surreal tone, Synecdoche, New York’s existential angst, and Mother!’s woozy dream logic. And it’s all topped off with a sense of tension and dread that leaves you feeling like Freddy Krueger may jump out of the shadows at any moment.
Beau Is Afraid is Aster’s least frightening film yet. It’s also his most disturbing.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Beau, an anxious middle-aged pushover with no real prospects in life. He’s so passive and shackled by fear that simply getting through another chaotic day is a major victory. We first meet Beau in his psychiatrist’s office, working through his complicated feelings towards his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone – and Zoe Lister-Jones in flashbacks).
Beau loves his mother with all his heart, even though she’s the root of his many neuroses. Mona is manipulative, domineering, and as toxic as Springfield’s nuclear power plant. When tragedy strikes, Beau is forced to leave the “comfort” of his apartment (an actual deathtrap) to make a trip to his mother’s home.
That sounds simple enough. However, Beau’s reality is nothing like our own. The world outside his apartment is a vicious hellscape where psychos, criminals, and freaks have overrun the streets – imagine Gotham City elected the Joker as mayor. There’s nothing Beau wouldn’t do for his mother, so as he embarks on the dangerous trek back home, he’s forced to confront his greatest fears, both real and imagined.
Beau Is Afraid is less about a straightforward narrative than creating an unsettling mood. So even though this film has a (thin) plot, Aster isn’t interested in sticking to typical storytelling conventions. Instead, the film plays out through a series of increasingly bizarre chapters dotted along Beau’s journey.
Your ability to understand what’s happening depends on your desire to decipher metaphors and read between the lines. I’m willing to bet the three-hour runtime and bananas tone will alienate many viewers. But if you’re into daring filmmaking, Aster doesn’t hold anything back here.
An outside-the-box movie like this doesn’t work without a supreme talent like Phoenix holding it all together. There’s not another actor alive today who’s better at portraying broken and desperate men (The Master, Her, Joker).
Phoenix excels at playing slump-shouldered, mush-mouth pushovers, but what takes those performances to another level is that hint of menace always lurking in his eyes.
Beau is onscreen for nearly the entire movie, and somehow Phoenix keeps finding new ways to elevate his performance. He’s simply magnetic.
The film throws Beau into a series of harrowing situations so that Aster the screenwriter, may tackle themes of guilt, self-doubt, and co-dependency. And of course, this wouldn’t be an Aster movie if it didn’t explore twisted family dynamics and the razor-thin line between love and hate. All these anxiety-inducing concepts weave themselves into a dire tale of intergenerational cycles of trauma.
Mona shattered Beau’s sense of self-worth before he hit puberty, and he never recovered. She conditioned her son to fear everything, and now he struggles to live in a world where he sees danger everywhere.
Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. Sometimes, the self-doubt in our mind is scarier than any horror movie villain. The film’s clever hook is how Aster mines horror from his protagonist’s low self-esteem and lack of confidence.
Throughout the film, Aster physically manifests his protagonist’s struggles and fears to chilling effect. So when Beau thinks the world is out to get him, a madman actually chases him through the streets. Every unhinged encounter he experiences reflects the sad way he views himself. Even though Beau survives several accidents and violent encounters, he’s by no means living.
I respect Aster’s work, but I can’t say I enjoy watching his films. They’re brutal and punishing in ways that leave my soul depleted. Beau Is Afraid strives to evoke the same degree of white-knuckle terror as Hereditary and Midsommar, but lacks the satisfying horror-thriller trappings that drew genre fans to those movies.
If you enjoy Aster’s films, you don’t want to miss out on this one. It’s haunting and brutally violent with a twisted sense of humour. But everyone else needs to understand what they’re in for – watch the trailer first. Unfortunately, many will find it too long, too self-indulgent, and too hard to follow.
Although making sense of the film is often challenging, each character’s emotions always ring loud and clear, thanks to cast’s stellar performances.
Watching Beau Is Afraid is akin to twisting around on a roller coaster until you don’t know which way is up. It’s only jarring if you refuse to submit to the rush.