By Bradley Lane
Ari Aster is one of, if not the, biggest name in horror today. His first two films, 2018’s Hereditary and 2019’s Midsommar, have almost instantly been canonized as classics of modern horror. Along the way he has gained a ravenous fan base and respect from the filmmaking industry including very vocal support from the legendary Martin Scorsese. The success of his first two films set Aster up for a highly funded, studio interference free, and creativity unbound third feature, culminating in the release of this year’s highly anticipated Beau is Afraid. This freedom acts as a double-edged sword in the resulting finished work. Beau is a stunningly realized anxiety-soaked comedy with style dripping from every scene, but this gorgeously constructed artifice serves only to hide the emptiness at the core of Aster’s third feature.
Beginning in an unhinged decaying cityscape, Beau, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is preparing to visit his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death. This journey takes on even more grave importance when Beau receives news of his mother’s passing while he was on his way to her. The resulting set of events follows Beau as he is thrust into a series of increasingly more fantastical situations that explore his own inner world of trauma, guilt and shame.
Beau is Afraid is a massive film; a three-hour runtime houses a four-act structure that functions almost like four short films thematically stitched together. This structure is one of the film’s first big problems. Because each section has a distinct beginning, middle and end, the pacing as a whole feels stunted as he strains to pack as much as he can into each section. Despite this, Aster is a master of tone, maintaining a nightmarish and darkly hilarious feeling of discomfort throughout, playing to his strength as a highly experiential director.
For all its grandiose gesturing at thematic richness however, Beau is Afraid feels distinctly hollow. It introduces ideas about late-stage capitalism, the surveillance state, class disparity, police violence, the responsibility of artists and even veterans’ mental health. However, it says nothing of any depth about Beau’s own personal issues stemming from his sexual repression at the behest of his overbearing mother. It is a distinctly Freudien message that feels at once over simplistic and overly complicated as Aster bashes you over the head with these ideas over and over throughout a taxing three hours.
For all its thematic ambition and technical prowess, Aster has wasted his talents on delivering a work that feels overly personal and dishonest. In contrast to his stylistic contemporaries, this film evokes especially well the works of Charlie Kaufman, yet Aster’s willingness to open up to his audience falls flat because it feels overly simplistic and artificially constructed. Beau is Afraid is a film that swings for the fences, and I think its wild ambition will be enough for some audiences, but for me it stands as one of the year’s biggest disappointments. Beau is Afraid is currently exclusively showing in theaters. – 2.5/5 stars