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Beau is Afraid

Ari Aster's latest is an overly-ambitious surrealist film

Ari Aster was part of an exciting crop of new horror filmmakers alongside Robert Eggers and Mike Flannagan, who seemed to be redefining the genre with bold new brushstrokes. His debut film, Hereditary (2018) proved worthy enough to be in the conversation of the Scariest Movies of All Time alongside The Exorcist (1973) and The Shining (1980). His follow-up, Midsommar (2019) was a brilliant take on grief, wringing scares in broad daylight. As such, his third film was eagerly anticipated, and has finally arrived.

Beau is Afraid (2023) is a surrealist look at Beau, (Joaquin Phoenix) a nervy, middle-aged man who is attempting to get to his mother’s (Patti LuPone) house with urgency. Along the way though, he’ll be beset by picaresque sequences and characters reflecting his inner turmoil of familial trauma.

Aster’s previous two films have also been fascinatingly focused on grief, but Beau is Afraid takes this concept a step further, examining grief not through the eyes of death, but through a parental relationship instead. Beau is Afraid is a story of a man trying to figure out his complicated feelings about his mother and the role that a son is expected to play within such a relationship. This is backlit with a larger cacophony of societal commentary, which is extremely grim, even for the dark Aster, whose films have never been the brightest rays of sunshine. That said, there is a welcome, if sometimes incongruous use of dark comedy in Beau is Afraid, using confusion and certain magical realist tropes to throw viewers off and embellish Aster’s symbolism.

Aster delivers one of the most blatantly surrealist films in years, with the budget and ambition that would even have put Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini to shame. Beau is Afraid is studio A24’s most expensive film to date, and Aster uses the money to great effect, from hybrid animated/live-action sequences to impressive de-aging techniques, and inventive visual effects. However, along with this surprising investment and studio-backing come the pitfalls in Beau is Afraid. Aster seems to have been bolder and more ambitious with his vision than his execution and narrative were capable of. The film is a couple minutes shy of three hours, with surrealist sequences dragging on of so long, you start to forget where the actual narrative had left off. While surrealism as an artform is supposed to unsettle and confuse you, Aster seems more attracted to shock and awe viewers, be it with gore, comedy, or visual flourishes. This waters down Beau is Afraid and its thematic elements, as the screen is overcrowded with winks, commentary, and flair. The length, meanwhile, doesn’t add to immersion, but wears viewers down instead with wrist flicks to check the time becoming increasingly frequent in my screening.

The role of Beau is an incredibly complex one; thankfully Aster employs one of the best working actors today. Joaquin Phoenix inhabits Beau with the air of a little boy in a hostile adult’s world. Phoenix straddles the fine line of showcasing this hidden child inside him, while also seeming to be a functioning adult who is baffled by the strange scenes surrounding him. The supporting cast is likewise strong, delivering fully committed performances within this bizarre film, from LuPone as the deliciously complex mother to Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan as some seemingly friendly Samaritans.

In the end, however, Aster’s ambition gets the better of him. Beau is Afraid succumbs to its excesses and loses itself and its themes within its stylistic and attention-seeking grandeur. It is incredibly encouraging to see studios back such unusual fare, but sadly the results seen here will not be too encouraging for future filmmakers. Here’s hoping Aster doesn’t grow discouraged and continues with bold, if maybe more restrained, filmmaking in the future.



About Young Critic

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I've been writing on different version of this website since February of 2013. I originally founded the website in a film-buff phase in high school, but it has since continued through college and into my adult life. Young Critic may be getting older, but the love and passion for film is forever young. 

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