Having anxiety is hell on Earth.
I open with this thought despite it likely seeming painfully obvious to anyone afflicted by it. There is nothing redeeming about spending many of your waking moments in conflict with your mind, and sometimes your body, as either or both feel to be actively working against you. It is an unenviable disorder that all too many individuals endure on a daily basis. One of these individuals named Ari Aster crafted a three-hour odyssey all about the horrors of anxiety that is currently in theaters for any person willing to brave it.
If you remember your middle/high school gym class, a game often played is kickball. On essentially every team, there would be a player or two who, when it was their turn to approach home plate to kick the ball, the field players’ screams of “BACK UP” could be heard echoing off the gym walls. Beau Is Afraid is a “BACK UP” kind of movie. Here we have a filmmaker swinging for the fences, seemingly completely unburdened by pressures of making a film accessible to general audiences, or crafting a film that will turn a profit for a studio, and in the process, making a true blank check film.
I mean everything I just said as a compliment of the highest order if you are a specific breed of viewer.
Beau Is Afraid follows the titular Beau (Joaquin Phoenix, as good as he has ever been), a man plagued by a constant and relentless fear of the world around him. Beau has plans to visit his overbearing mother (Patti LuPone in the present and Zoe Lister-Jones in flashbacks), but after a series of catastrophic events resulting in him missing his flight and climaxing with the untimely death of his mother in a freak accident, Beau must brave the hellish outside world on a nightmarish odyssey home to attend his mother’s funeral.
Where Aster’s two previous outings were more straight-up horror films with comedy sprinkled in, Beau Is Afraid reveals itself to be a pitch-black comedy with bursts of horror sprinkled in very early on. This is an exhausting film by design as we are thrown off the deep end into the perspective and worldview of a man whose every waking moment is crippled by anxiety and an irrational fear of quite literally everything and everyone. A seemingly harmless act of taking a pill early into the film’s runtime is taken to its most nightmarish conclusion when Beau reads the pill MUST be taken with water to avoid the possibility of death as a side effect. Of course, our unfortunate protagonist takes the pill moments before the water in his apartment shuts off. The film is basically one scenario like this after another, but if you are a viewer who can find the dark comedy and pathos in sequences like this, you will likely find Beau Is Afraid truly unforgettable.
As has come to be expected with an Ari Aster film, the performances here are great across the board. This is certainly Joaquin Phoenix’s film as the titular Beau is in virtually every scene of the film. What makes Phoenix’s performance so impressive in this film is he takes a character constantly surrounded by — and in collision with — cartoonish levels of punishment and torture and brings a palpable tragic quality to him. He plays the role completely straight, never winking at the audience, which is an incredibly fine line to walk. It’s easily one of his best performances.
This film is also filled to the brim with excellent supporting performances. It’s impossible to not mention Patti LuPone as a highlight of the film. Like most secondary and tertiary characters of Beau Is Afraid, her screen time only makes up a chapter, but she is a force of nature in those scenes. I also want to credit Nathan Lane who gives a genuinely fantastic comedic performance that, for my money, is so good and memorable that it manages to rank up there with his best work.
However, the true star of Beau Is Afraid is Ari Aster himself. This film feels deeply personal and could only be created by someone who had crafted the “one for them” and finds themself at the “one for me”. On a technical level, this is undoubtedly Aster’s most impressive film. The first third is filled to the brim with long shots of complete and utter chaos that had to have been incredibly difficult to film and choreograph. The mise en scène is so specific and detailed that every frame becomes an overwhelming, and yes, anxiety-inducing experience. Production Designer Fiona Crombie deserves recognition for her staggering work here. Every environment and location of this film feels so distinct and vibrant, and this isn’t even mentioning the twenty minutes where this film becomes an animated/live-action hybrid.
Despite the fact that I got multitudes out of Beau Is Afraid and found myself even feeling grateful that a film of this much vision was funded by a major studio, it’s only a film for a very narrow audience. There will be many people — maybe even the majority of people — who watch it, dislike it, or even hate it, and that is perfectly fine. While I found this film to be a breath of fresh air that had me leaving the theater excited and invigorated, there will be plenty of people who find this experience wildly pretentious, and painfully slow. Both responses are perfectly valid! Divisiveness doesn’t mean the discourse needs to be toxic.
With only three films, Ari Aster has cemented himself as a fascinating voice. You can say many things about his latest film, but one thing a person would have a difficult time arguing is that it isn’t a unique and original experience. In a film-scape of so many uniform at best, and creatively bankrupt at worst, studio outings, I find it frankly inspiring that a film like Beau Is Afraid found its way to a wide release.
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