"Beau is Afraid" Film Review
By: Nathaniel Simpson
Ari Aster's "Beau is Afraid" is easily one of the strangest films I have ever seen, glorified by its wacky scenarios and disturbing challenges Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself facing. It seems like Aster is at his craziest here, utilizing some of the aspects from his previous films here. What I think this film does the best is setting up tension and anxiety early on in the film, and never letting go of the viewer until the movie's final credit has run its way up the screen. It's never easy to watch and I wouldn't just recommend this film to anyone, but by God, is this movie fascinating. Even though it's not for everyone, there is no doubt this is a masterclass of filmmaking, crafting the terror and nightmarish plot around Phoenix's fantastic performance, giving one of the best in his entire career.
This movie seems like it is split into three different acts. The first revolves around Beau and his misadventures around his apartment, including wacky neighbors who want him to turn his music down at night (even though they're the ones playing it so loudly that it shakes the apartment's walls), disturbing behavior around his apartment, including a kid cocking an assault rifle in public and onlookers urging a man to commit suicide, and much more. However. Beau is worried about something completely else, going home to see his mother (Patti Lupone) on the anniversary of his father's death. He tells his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) about his worries, though it doesn't seem to help him much. When unfortunate circumstances prevent Beau from going home on that certain day and he ultimately gets hit by a truck, he is now stranded.
Part two opens up with him now healing in the home of Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane), who were the ones who hit him with their car on accident. They are kind in a very odd and distrusting way, and this is made worse by their demented daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers). He spends the majority of the second part here, which leads to the third part, of him on the run back to his mother's house, hoping to get there in time before his mother thinks he is a horrible son. However, the entire movie is basically one huge anxiety trip, making the viewer ponder and question whether what they witnessed throughout Aster's three-hour epic was real or not.
Besides the film doing a fantastic job at setting up the tension and anxiety necessary for this movie to work (which we'll get into soon), I think the best thing about this film is Phoenix's performance. There have been numerous films recently that have their main characters experience an anxiety trip throughout the runtime, including Florence Pugh's performances in Olivia Wilde's "Don't Worry Darling" and in Aster's "Midsommar", but I don't think they even come close to Phoenix's performance. He graces the screen as this character who perhaps the worst mommy issues present in film, and is so riddled with anxiety that he can't easily function in societal settings. I would say this is easily better than the performances he has given in films like Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" and Todd Phillips' "Joker".
Yet, at the same time, Beau is presented as such a lovable and heroic character, in Aster's twisted and deranged ways. As the viewer, we don't see Beau as a loser or an odd character, but rather as a hero that we want to see succeed throughout the movie. I think a major part of that is Aster and Phoenix really take us into the psyche of Beau; we are transported into this disturbing reality that we are seeing through his eyes. It genuinely feels like no other movie you have ever seen before, creating a new environment and setting that makes the viewer feel incredibly uncomfortable.
In addition to Phoenix giving a stellar performance, the other actors present here, especially Ryan, Lane, Rogers, Lupone, and McKinley Henderson, are fanatically horrifying in all of the right ways. There are moments throughout the film that feel incredibly claustrophobic, especially during the car ride Phoenix takes with Rogers' character, that is elevated by Rogers' genuinely disturbed performance as a teenage girl who has been cast aside by her parents due to the death of her soldier brother. They help make this film seem more deranged and terrifying, and I applaud each and every one of them for making this film what it is.
Aster sort of takes every nightmare humanly possible, and jam-packs them into this movie. He is able to hide messages deep within the story, such as the loss of a loved one, the condition of America today in terms of aspects like drugs, violence, sex, homophobia, guilt many people are forced to feel, etc. He tells this story so beautifully and hauntingly that it makes the viewer look back on their own lives and re-consider the choices and events that turned them into the person they are today. I think that in a way, every single person watching finds a bit of themselves in Beau, and maybe that's why it is so easy to root for his character and want him to be happy and successful at the end.
While the film does make great choices, such as sending our titular protagonist on a whole animated dream sequence to watching his past unfold in terms of a cruise ship vacation, where young Beau (Arden Nahapetian) meets a young version of Parker Posey's Elaine (Julia Atonelli), you do feel this runtime throughout the film. This easily feels like more than three hours. There are so many ideas and elements combined here that work perfectly to bring up the tension levels that it does feel very tiring and long. I felt exhausted after watching this picture due to my stress and anxiety level being through the roof the entire time. Aster did achieve what he set out to make the viewer feel, even if the runtime does seem too long at times.
Overall, I think this is a work of art, and just shows how great a filmmaker Aster truly is. I think all of the choices he made in terms of storytelling work so greatly here, and it's made even better by the fantastic performances given by Phoenix and company. Many people have said this is not their cup of tea or that it's a step-down from "Hereditary" and "Midsommar", and while it is true that this is not for everyone, I think there is no denying this is just another modern masterpiece from perhaps one of the best modern horror directors.
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