Well, it turns out the gushing about Disney Plus in my last post has aged as gracefully as melted ice cream on a sunny day. Many programs (including the recent Willow series) are due to be removed soon. The removal has been cited for cost-cutting reasons. But it ultimately paints a stark picture for the future of streaming services as the new battlefield could be your precious money versus the art that can be removed at any time. It’s sickening and sad, and needs calling out, no matter how big your platform is.
From corporate to something that at least could be artistically authentic, I’ve been eager to see Beau is Afraid for a while and so glad it has finally reached UK shores (albeit in a limited release across a scant amount of cinemas). Have you had a chance to see Ari Aster’s new movie? Let me know in the comments below.
In terms of contemporary American directors, there’s no one quite like Ari Aster. His feature film debut, Hereditary, impresses with its combination of underhanded supernatural aspects and the brewing tension of its familial angst. It felt like an heir to prestige horror movies such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist for its dramatic elements. Despite greatly admiring the ambition and scope of Midsommar, I find it does not quite come together for me. This is due to a muddled sense of pathos, resulting in its central character’s journey feeling incongruous and silly. By comparison, Aster’s third effort is a darkly pitched and surreal comedy about parental disenchantment.
Beau is Afraid is about its title character’s (Joaquin Phoenix) mad capped journey to get home to attend the funeral of his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone). Along the way, Beau encounters a nude serial killer, an amiable couple and a travelling troupe of actors.
For a certain amount of the movie, Beau is Afraid seemed quite different from Aster’s previous endeavours. This came from it feeling like a chamber piece that ratchets up the intensity of its heightened world of ultra-violence. Typically, sequences like this would exist in prior Aster films, but they often felt like exclamation points rather than run-on sentences.
With this in mind, Beau is Afraid firmly wears its surrealism on its sleeve, with Beau’s transition from one odd situation to the next carrying a sheer black comedic spirit. In fact, part of the film is bemused by the very existence of Beau. He’s someone who seems so ill-equipped to just get by in the ever-maddening world we see, that his resilience becomes an ongoing joke in itself. In his performance as Beau, Joaquin Phoenix’s stillness struck me the most, particularly in scenes when he is stumbling upon horrific truths. Patti LuPone is a formidable screen presence as a maternal figure who mixes sweetness and incandescent rage.
As the film went along, Beau is Afraid felt thematically of a piece with Hereditary. That film was preoccupied with the deep-seated paranoia stemming from a parental figure inflicting emotional and physical harm. As Afraid unravels, it’s equally concerned with this theme. But it comes from the place of a mother who feels rejected by her son. It seems, no matter how much love Mona gives, Beau will want to keep her at arm’s length. Also, like Hereditary, there’s this sense that the maternal figure is trapped in a cycle of tragedy that she feels responsible for perpetuating. There’s lip service given at the tail end of the movie where Mona bemoans the fact that her mother never gave her any love or affection.
So, in a sense, the parental disenchantment and resentment is a pattern that keeps repeating itself, despite the best intentions that Mona has. But I also think that in broad strokes, Aster is satirical in how he paints the world around Beau. Due to how heightened, frantic and crime-ridden it is (akin to an early eighties New York City) that’s had a collision with the Purge, Aster paints a picture of underlying fervent anger that comes from parental pressure. And in a quiet scene where pills are given out like a dessert at a three-course meal, Aster feels pointed in illustrating the absurdity of pharmaceuticals in soothing the underlying troubles of the soul and psyche.
Aster’s imagery also feels a piece with his other two movies. One recurring motif is the image of a tall and imposing triangle-shaped building that feels like a forbidden place where the starkest secrets of the soul are kept. And in the film’s best-extended sequence, Beau finds himself so transfixed in an outdoor theatre production that he projects himself in it. It feels like a dreamy and surreal inverse of the miniature and dollhouse imagery that permeated Hereditary. Some of the best instances of filmmaking are contained within the section. The most striking is a close-up of a younger version of Mona telling Beau how he was conceived. The face almost takes up the entire frame as shadows of dark blue and red come in and out of focus to obscure the character’s face. It reminded me of a cross between Ingmar Bergman’s use of close-up by way of the colourfully surreal close-ups of James Stewart’s character in Vertigo.
Elsewhere, Aster’s use of tracking shots that give us a portrait of a maddening city on the brink of violent collapse stood out to me. And some of the long shots were slightly comedic due to the anticipation of Beau coming into the frame based on the situation he just got himself into.
Even as I write these words, there are no doubt parts of Beau is Afraid that have slipped me by. But I found it to be one of the most thrilling experiences at the movies this year. It kept me on my toes with its gonzo spirit. Despite its many surreal turns, it has the emotional truth of a Samuel Beckett play insofar as portraying how a human being, against all hope and logic, crashes against the waves of existential turmoil. The fact that Beau can still dream of a better life (despite his circumstances and upbringing) is both moving and absurd.
This is intriguing! Great review. I’m usually up for a trippy movie and this sounds like it has some real substance to it.
I was just wondering, because you brought up Hereditary as being by the same filmmaker, how does this movie play for someone who is generally disinterested in horror? I’m good with some horrific aspects, or dark comedic horror elements, but I definitely lean more toward the thriller-y, psychological end of horror in general.
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Thank you for reading and for the kind words. That’s an interesting question. I’d say based on your preferences, the movie should be good for you. While, the early scenes can be anxiety inducing, they’re feel darkly comic in spirit that they’re not so scary. There’s also some grotesque imagery and situtions that I have not alluded in the review, but again are tinted with the darkest shade of black comedy. As a rule of thumb, if you’ve seen Se7en or Silence of the Lambs and were not freaked out by them, then you should be fine.
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