Ari Aster makes films that are more stylish than smart, which in today’s world earns filmmakers a glowing reputation. His first film, Hereditary, dripped with familial doom until the reason for the destruction dried up the tension. His follow-up, Midsommar, set a beautiful trap that ultimately didn’t catch much. Sensing a pattern? In his short career, his films have started strong before petering out, largely because Aster’s great skill is in ratcheting up tension, not releasing it. Which, I guess, is something A24 thought he could sort out on his own with free rein and a blank check for his third feature.
Well, as much of a blank check as you can get at his home production/distribution studio, whose prestigious yet bankable reputation has grown along with Aster’s. And so Beau is Afraid is a big, loud swing for the fences, one that shows off much of what Aster does well along with everything he’s yet to master.
Out of the gate, the film grabs you by the face. It throws you into a world of savage chaos, with Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) stumbling through in fear. There have been great representations of anxiety on screen before, but it’s hard to remember a more potent one. The simple act of Beau getting to his doorway is laced with terror, and every direction you look are threats both coherent and incoherent. If you can keep your wits about you, pay attention to the graffiti on the walls. The stream of consciousness scribbling gives off the eerie sensation of doom scrolling.
Beau sees a therapist and tries some new pills to deal with his world, which immediately calls into question the reality of what we’re seeing. But instead of spending time exploring this possibility, Aster uses it to throw reality out the window. He starts you in a fever dream, lulls you with false promises of security, plaintively imagines happiness, then reveals its impossibility.
Some sections reach the dizzying heights of cinema, capturing a frenzy of emotion that’s broken by humor just before it overwhelms. This is largely reserved for the movie’s first half. We are talking about an Ari Aster film, after all.
It’s when he’s focused on the sensation of anxiety that Beau is Afraid is most compelling, not just in the frantic opening but in the eerie interlude that follows, where Beau is sequestered at a doctor’s idyllic home. Something is off, and it’s not just Nathan Lane playing straight. The hippocratic oath can be broken just like any other promise, although this guy probably never bothered taking it at all.
Hints are hidden in throughout the home that doesn’t feel lived in, the disdain that’s too strong to be written off as teenage angst from the daughter, and a shrine to their dead son that isn’t exactly comforting. It’s the detail here and in the rest of Beau is Afraid that’s most striking, and it’ll probably make rewatches worthwhile to catch all the eerie and hilarious details. The movie is admirably packed, even at its three hour length.
It’s when Beau leaves this false idyll that Aster’s weaknesses begin to show, because from here the film starts making sense. Or, more accurately, it starts explaining itself, and the explanation turns out to be banal.
Beau is Afraid is a film that thrives on bizarreness, and in the roil of emotions one finds lots of opportunities to be bizarre. It’s imperative, though, that these emotions be treated with respect, especially when given as common and damaging an origin as Aster pedantically portrays. Phoenix, as always, keeps them at the fore, and he along with the late additions of Parker Posey and Patti LuPone almost keep Aster’s ending afloat, but their efforts are undermined by an inability to commit to the core truth Aster is dancing around.
He’s attempted to make something of a horror comedy, much akin to the dark tones Yorgos Lanthimos hits in his most unsettling films. Aster matches Lanthimos’ pitch black humor, but he misses that Lanthimos ends with moments that lay emotional truths bare. The Favourite lingers on the haunting image of the queen alone in her grief. The Lobster sees Rachel Weisz in the deep vulnerability required to find love. And in the film that most closely parallels what Aster is exploring in Beau is Afraid, Lanthimos’ Dogtooth allows the violence and horror of abuse to rear its head. None of these moments are cut by humor, and in their plainness Lanthimos shows respect for emotions that would be near impossible to look at directly for an entire feature. Aster fails to show such unadulterated respect in Beau is Afraid, and so it doesn’t land a gut punch. There’s still lots of moments to like, but it falls just short of greatness.
Release: available now in theaters
Director: Ari Aster
Writers: Ari Aster
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Kylie Rogers, Denis Ménochet, Parker Posey, Zoe Lister-Jones, Armen Nahapetian