Try as I might, I am not immune to various Internet scuttlebutt about movies. I generally attempt to avoid spoilery information as well as any sort of early buzz about a film, not because it would color my own opinion but because it makes for a better viewing experience. However, “Beau Is Afraid” started getting a bit of a weird cachet in corners of online cinephilia, with stories that people found the film to be an utterly bizarre experience. Having seen writer/director Ari Aster’s latest feature, there’s no doubt that it’s odd, and there are some genuine WTF moments scattered throughout, but I was expecting something weirder — something that felt newer or more inventive.
It’s very well shot, the world it creates is a suitably dark fantasy of anxiety and phobias, and Joaquin Phoenix does a great job in the titular role, but “Beau Is Afraid” is a frustrating experience. It isn’t frustrating because it’s a postmodern psychological examination of basic existential fears and neuroses, or because it could be seen as a somewhat impenetrable text. What makes “Beau Is Afraid” frustrating is that I walked away thinking, “Is that it?” A three-hour movie that traverses time and space, and wades into the waters of Freudian psychology mixed with modern problems, “Beau Is Afraid” is executed very well on a technical level, but it leaves you feeling somewhat underwhelmed by it all.
At its core, the film is about Beau — or rather, Aster — having issues with his mother and being a very anxious person. However, the whole thing seems like a very long-winded way to get to that overly simplified statement. There’s more to it, of course. “Beau Is Afraid” concerns a man riddled with anxiety attempting to navigate a chaotic and terrifying world while trying to go back to his mother’s house, encountering various people and setbacks along the way while also reflecting on his own pasts, insecurities and fears.
You may have noticed that there’s been the use of the same (or similar) words in these first three paragraphs: fear and anxiety (or “fear and trembling,” if you want to go back to Søren Kierkegaard’s phrasing). Beau is a terribly fearful person, full of panic in a universe that seems designed to prey on all those worries and to prove them right. Aster does a fantastic job of transporting the audience into the mindset of such a person, feeling the overwhelming dread and rising unease that permeate every interaction and situation. It’s brilliantly done, with Phoenix giving a great performance as a cowardly and insecure man who doesn’t want to disturb the cosmos but feels assaulted by it at every turn. His constant confusion and reticence to progress are utterly human, perfectly acted and incredibly frustrating. It’s as if Hamlet had run out of Zoloft.
Speaking of Hamlet, the Freudian issues with Beau’s parents — his filial piety tied up with his hang-ups on sex and love — are both very obvious and very basic. If you’ve ever seen Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” then you get what’s going on. And the comparisons to “The Wall” aren’t just limited to the oddly fraught dynamic between mother and son but also very much in structure and plot. It’s not totally wrong to think of “Beau Is Afraid” as a non-musical version of that album/film, albeit with a Pink that never became a rock star due to horrifically crippling anxiety.
That frustration with Beau’s indecisive and pathetic lack of action shows a deft hand by Aster in script and direction. Beyond perfectly rendering an overwhelming world outside of Beau that assaults the senses and disorients the viewers, it takes a very talented filmmaker to also make that internal struggle so palpable and engaging. We know Beau is incapable of doing anything, and we know that he will be upset and disappointed at every turn, but parts of us hope (not unlike Beau) that this time there will be some initiative shown and some obstacle overcome with a measure of personal growth. While the past two Aster features, “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” are very blatantly horror exercises that use the genre format to explore deeper psychological issues, “Beau Is Afraid” takes these deeper psychological issues to elicit the horrors of an impending panic attack in a life fully out of someone’s control.
However, for every step forward, there’s a step back. “Beau Is Afraid” is a daring film, but does it have anything particularly new to say? And although it says it in a unique way, is that just recency bias given the glut of bigger corporate fare? Also, while it’s beautifully shot and acted, are the roles so one-note in their emotions that it’s not as complex as it wishes to be?
Aster’s film reminds me of the Hunter S. Thompson quote: “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” This movie is simply too bizarre to write off but not bizarre enough to truly inspire. It will haunt the minds of all who see it, but it feels like it could’ve gone further somehow. Instead, it’s stuck in that liminal state, not unlike a man struck indecisive from a lifetime of worry and phobias who simply wants to go home.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Parker Posey, Richard Kind, Kylie Rogers, Denis Ménochet, Zoe Lister-Jones, Armen Nahapetian
Director: Ari Aster