Beau Is Afraid
The title of the film really says it all: Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) is a middle-aged recluse who is afraid of the world. When he plans a trip to see his mother, industry titan Mona (Patti LuPone), on the anniversary of his father’s death, Beau finds himself in one predicament after another, and his journey takes him from the smoke into the smother.
With only two previous features under his belt, writer and director Ari Aster has already become a crowd favourite of independent horror, in particular of the slightly obscure “WTF did I just watch?” variety moviegoers have come to associate with A24 distributions. Thematically speaking, Beau Is Afraid is right in line with Hereditary and Midsommar – dysfunctional families, dread, bereavement – but Aster’s latest masterstroke sees his work at peak ambition, a creative apex, without inhibition or restraint, resulting in what will surely become known as his most divisive movie (so far, at least).
Despite their unpleasant characteristics, in Midsommar the fresh-faced protagonists’ arrival in a strange place, where they were confronted with something sinister, offered a sense of relatability to the audience. People were willing to put themselves in their shoes: Florence Pugh’s flower crown became a popular social media filter. Anxious and apologetic man-child Beau offers no such projection surface – the viewer is trapped inside his world, vulnerable to all of its uncanniness for the three-hour runtime. It’s this Freudian term that best describes the prevalent atmosphere, yet one can’t help but wonder whether a film like Beau Is Afraid can still be classified as horror, or if perhaps it wouldn’t be better served if shelved under “dark comedy”, so as to manage expectations. Aster himself refers to the genre as “picaresque”.
The casting of comedic forces Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane and Parker Posey in bitingly amusing supporting roles drives the humorous narration. Despite being a regular recipient of some of the highest acting accolades, Phoenix’s genre-bending versatility as a broken boy inside an ageing body is nonetheless revelatory.
Both cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and editor Lucian Johnston are longtime collaborators of Aster’s, and in their latest synergy they have perfected the stylistic signature of hard match cuts, in which the time of day and surroundings of a character change while they remain in the same position. When the camera moves, it fluidly reveals further goings on, background action and looming dangers. There are so many honed details in each frame, some prophetic, some hysterical, it takes a second or third viewing to catch them all. The set designers and art department have gone above and beyond to build this nightmarish world, a feast for the eyes in all its glory.
Breaking storytelling rules of three-act structures, the feature’s epic proportions include biblical symbolism, elements of Parzival’s origin story, Kafka and the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Oedipus tale, yet nothing feels outdated. Beau Is Afraid is an odyssey that is both inappropriately funny and relentlessly haunting – just don’t watch it with your parents.
Beau Is Afraid is released nationwide on 19th May 2023.
Watch the trailer for Beau Is Afraid here: