Time: 179 Minutes
Age Rating: R16 – Violence, sexual violence, offensive language & content that may disturb
Joaquin Phoenix as Beau Wassermann
Patti LuPone as Mona Wassermann
Amy Ryan as Grace
Nathan Lane as Roger
Parker Posey as Elaine Bray
Stephen McKinley Henderson as the therapist
Director: Ari Aster
Following the sudden death of his mother, a mild-mannered but anxiety-ridden man confronts his darkest fears as he embarks on an epic, Kafkaesque odyssey back home.
Leading up to the release of Beau is Afraid, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it, despite Joaquin Phoenix being cast in the lead role. Director Ari Aster is interesting to me, I liked Hereditary when I saw it, but was also very lukewarm on his follow up film Midsommar. However, the polarising reactions to Aster’s latest did have me curious, and I’m glad to say that I liked it.
Beau is Afraid is far different from any movie that Ari Aster made in the past, it more closely resembles a Charlie Kaufman movie than Hereditary or Midsommar. It’s by far his most ambitious film yet, a creative and unpredictable 3 hour long dark character piece and psychological trip through anxiety. The further the movie goes, the deeper Aster gets into protagonist Beau’s mind. The initial plot may seem simple, with it focusing on Joaquin Phoenix’s Beau going to visit his mother, but the actual movie is far from simple. So much of the movie is over the top and exaggerated. It’s takes place from Beau’s perspective and never leaves it, so you can’t get a grip on what is real and what isn’t. It is stressful and anxiety inducing, and the subject matter is uncomfortable at times. At the same time, the weirdness somewhat has a charm to it. There’s even some surprising dark humour, usually with how absurd the scenarios are. Beau is Afraid sets the tone within the first 5 minutes, and I started off having a good feeling about it. The first act was a dark comedy about irrational fears and takes place in a city where just about everyone has gone mad, and it had this absurdist charm to it. It worked well at establishing Beau and his anxieties, and you really feel his tension and fears of everything.
After it leaves its first act and enters the second hour beginning with a section where Beau is staying with a couple, that’s where it began to stumble for me. Despite some good moments and great acting, it gets shaky really quickly. Once the journey actually begins, its like the movie is just dragging Beau from one traumatic experience to another. It loses its focus until the third act, and the momentum fizzles out over time; by the end I didn’t think it went anywhere particularly thoughtful. At a certain point, it really seems like Ari Aster is just opting to torture Beau, and the mean spirited attitude towards the main character does have some mixed results. I was on board with it for the first hour or so, but it becomes grating. It is also a very self indulgent movie with some elaborate set pieces, and while they are well crafted, they don’t always add a whole lot to the movie. This movie obviously can’t just be taken on face value and you have to look a little deeper to find further interpretations, but weirdly it felt a little shallow and on the nose. While the last act has some stand out parts and is more consistently strong than the middle act, it culminates in a dissatisfying ending which takes an abrupt turn. I’m sure its meant to leave you with that feeling, but my patience had been wavering over the course of the movie, so the conclusion did leave me feeling a little cold and not necessarily in the good way. For a 3 hour long movie, so much of it felt incomplete and underdeveloped. It is definitely too long, parts of the middle act and the ending stand out as such. It drags at a certain point, and it doesn’t help that its already exhausting to watch.
The acting is pretty strong. Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role gives another emotionally committed performance, he really sells so much of his character and the situations he’s thrown into. The rest of the cast are pretty good in their parts too, including Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Parker Posey, and Stephen McKinley Henderson. However, Patti LuPone is the standout and makes a strong impression in her scenes.
Ari Aster once again shows himself as a more than capable director. The cinematography is stunning, it’s greatly edited, and the sound design and musical score from Bobby Krlic is on point. The visual storytelling is impressive, and all the technical elements come together to build the anxiety filled atmosphere. While you could question the necessity of some of them, the set pieces are at least visually appealing and creative.
Beau is Afraid is an ambitious, surreal, overlong, and anxiety filled nightmare which has its fair share of issues. However, it is also incredibly directed and shot, creative, darkly funny, and has some great performances. Ari Aster takes some massive swings with this movie and I’m happy that he got to do that, even if there’s a lot of the movie that didn’t entirely work for me. It’s very difficult to gauge who this would be for, but once again I have to throw out the often-redundant declaration “it’s not for everyone”. Even though I liked it myself, it’s not one I want to revisit (even beyond the length), but at the very least I admire it.