Beau is Afraid might just be Aster’s masterpiece of a movie.
Published on April 26, 2023
Rating 4 /5
Ari Aster’s films have a way of getting so under your skin and into your mind. His nightmarish efforts in the movie Hereditary and Midsommer are so intoxicating with their cerebral terror yet so unpredictable that it almost becomes absurd. The absurdity is cranked up to 11 in Beau is Afraid, his weirdest film to date with the most surreal stagings. It never settles on one tone and never compromises on a specific style. It’s a wild mixture of the cruel, the existential, and the irreverent.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau Wasserman, a middle-aged man whose trauma has riddled him with anxiety for life. Even in his older age, Beau has the look and feel of a child desperate for any form of love. As the pieced-out flashbacks reveal, Beau didn’t have the best childhood, leading to him dreading his reunion with his mother (Patti LuPone) on his father’s death anniversary. Everything goes wrong despite how much preparation he puts into this visit, ranging from mental readiness to travel arrangements. Beau’s world is an unforgiving one. It doesn’t just pour when it rains on his block. If somebody breaks into his apartment building, it’s the entire block. If there’s a pest problem in his place, it’s for a deadly spider. If there’s a problem with the pipes, it’s when he needs water most.
Beau struggles to make his journey home, leading to the strangest places. One of the creepier spots is a busy family's home (Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan). While the parents seem kind and charitable for taking in an injured Beau, they also harbor some people they fail to heal, including their rebellious daughter (Kylie Rogers) and a violent veteran with PTSD (Denis Ménochet). It isn’t long before Beau starts feeling unsafe and trapped in this environment, fearing for his time to get home and his life. Later, he’ll visit a cult in the woods where a fantasy washes over him of a different life he could have had. But even within the confines of his mind, Beau still feels that it’s a life that would go sour, as though bad luck and one wrong move can ruin everything.
Selling a film like this on its anxiety is no easy task for Aster makes this plight intriguing by exaggerating so much of it. Beau’s world is so unbelievably cruel that it comes loaded with over-the-top characters and signage. It’s not enough that there’s a serial stabber on Beau’s block; that stabber must be a naked guy branded as the Birthday Boy Slasher. It’s not enough that Beau eats terrible TV dinners; they must be some weird combo of Irish/Hawaiian fusion. Nearly every sign in the background is some ridiculous saying, from the bizarre sex shop to the vulgar graffiti of sexual acts.
Running at three hours, this is a movie that keeps getting bizarre with each following scene. There is no way to predict what is coming up next in a film that has bloody stabbings, nightmarish perceptions of security, gaps of time lost, animated sequences, fantasy sequences, and even a monster that is so strange in its theme and design that it has to be seen to be believed. It’s also unrelenting in its cruelty. Beau never catches a break, and there’s a heartbreaking nature to how much goes wrong. It’s almost out of mercy that Aster grants this movie plenty of tongue-in-cheek comedic moments.
Beau is Afraid might just be Aster’s masterpiece of a movie. It’s highly ambitious, wildly irreverent, and becomes deeply unsettling there further it goes. The top-notch performances are a treat, especially for a film where Nathan Lane says phrases like, “My dude!” Some nightmarish scenes will haunt the viewer long after, especially for the disorienting ending, but there are also ridiculous bits that offer the perfect chaser for the terror. This movie will not be for everybody, but those willing to give it a chance will discover a dizzying adventure with much to munch on mentally.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.