Review: Ari Aster's 'Beau Is Afraid' Warrants the Love-Hate Reception
by Manuel São Bento
May 3, 2023
Filmmaker Ari Aster returns with his third film, following the highly acclaimed Hereditary and the also well-received Midsommar. These two movies established the filmmaker as one of the most original voices currently working in Hollywood, despite being far from a commercial director. The target audience for his stories is a niche public that appreciates out-of-the-ordinary storytelling, experiences that leave the most observant viewers totally perplexed and, in many cases, needing multiple viewings to understand everything the auteur wants to convey. That said, Beau is Afraid has quickly become the year's most divisive film…
We all recognize the impact that the hype surrounding a movie has on the expectations of those who watch it. Viewers are influenced, in some shape or form, to compulsively love or hate a new film which, without the enormous anticipation and buzz previously generated, wouldn't provoke such an extreme reaction. Usually, this type of situation happens more often with franchises and popular sagas, but Beau Is Afraid achieved the same amount of anticipation due to Aster's impressive growth in the industry and viewers who are fond of him. Everyone expected a divisive reception months before already.
Some place Beau is Afraid as one of the best movies they've ever seen, others have called it a "career-killer". Both seem exaggerated at first reading, but the latter claim is almost more absurd than the film itself – the difference is that the movie is purposefully surreal. The simple fact that many react online as soon as the film is over when this one in particular undoubtedly requires time to let thoughts sink in, demonstrates much of what film criticism has become. Nowadays, it's more important to be the first tweet than to offer an honest reaction closer to what they really think. Preface over, moving on.
Ari Aster's Hereditary is one of my favorite horror flicks of the last decade, and I really enjoy Midsommar, despite being just few notches below the first one. That said, I don't usually deal well with surrealist stories, so my expectations were moderately controlled, knowing in advance that I would probably leave the theater without absolute certainty about a lot of things. Without wanting to sound arrogant and also with an admission up front that there are parts of the movie that I need to rewatch or study some extensive essays on, Beau is Afraid isn't that "difficult to get."
Naturally, Beau is Afraid is an extremely complex film, filled with the tiniest details and profound character arcs. However, it's not one of those movies that makes viewers leave their theater without comprehending anything they've seen. Guilt, extreme anxiety, and a complicated mother-son relationship are the main themes that Aster makes evident through his very unique, unconventional storytelling. Many mind-boggling films leave the most avid cinephiles scratching their heads, but I don't consider this one to be one of them.
Beau is Afraid can be divided into five sections. In each, all of Beau's (Joaquin Phoenix) complexities are made known to the audience. His constant anxiety takes the reins at the beginning of the movie, putting viewers in the mind of someone who imagines the worst-case scenario in every situation he's faced with. Throughout the film, the technical brilliance of the various film crew departments is nothing short of remarkable and, at times, truly impressive. The level of detail in all areas of the big screen is worthy of immense respect and, above all, admiration.
If the first "chapter" is simple to follow, the second is the heaviest chapter. Not that it's hard to understand – a couple is responsible for Beau until he's ready to continue his journey to meet his mother – but Aster spends a significant portion of the runtime on this section of the screenplay. Here, the feeling of guilt is deepened beyond its limit, taking up many seemingly unnecessary minutes to repeat clear messages over increasingly ridiculous sequences. I checked my watch at one point, thinking that the movie would be approaching the two-hour mark… and it hadn't reached halfway yet.
Fortunately, the third section comes at the right time, giving me reasons to invest in the story again. Beau is Afraid delivers one of the most mesmerizing, dazzling sequences of the year, blending 2D animation, live-action, and award-winning production and set design. It's also the most fascinating storyline in the entire flick, capturing my full attention due to an incredibly captivating narration of a fictional story about Beau's past, present, and future. The protagonist's most heartfelt desires are placed at the front of the stage, with all the spotlights pointing towards him.
The last two parts of the film dive deep into Beau's relationship with his mother. This last hour is precisely what I'm still processing. On one hand, Beau is Afraid manages to perfectly portray the intricacies of each family member, the mistakes each made along their life span, their regrets, their good deeds, and everything else that's possible to judge. On the other hand, some surreal components reduce the dramatic impact that I consider more important and essential to the narrative.
Untangling the movie in this way and analyzing it through the "chapters", Beau is Afraid becomes easier to understand and… contemplate. It's impossible to deny the fact it's a slow burn that, at several moments, asks the viewer to remember to stay focused. It's a tough watch whose conclusion can be unrewarding. Personally, I also have some difficulties putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, and trying to connect all the plot points across the five sections isn't a straightforward task after a single viewing.
Beau is Afraid is the kind of movie I admire more than I enjoy. Replay value is more dependent on issues related to film analysis than actual entertainment. Technically, it's a movie with much to praise, but at the end of the day, viewers want to feel satisfied with what they've just watched. Aster's style permeates through the film, becoming even more inaccessible. It holds all the characteristics of a love-hate flick, but honestly, many of the polar reactions are due to external reasons related to the filmmaker more than the movie itself.
A final note to mention Bobby Krlic's score (he also scored Midsommar) – atmospheric at times, anxiety-inducing at others, as well as Pawel Pogorzelski's cinematography – the lingering camera contributes tremendously to the levels of tension and suspense. Beau is Afraid would be a much heavier viewing without Joaquin Phoenix as the lead. The actor won't surprise anyone, delivering yet another entirely complete, layered portrayal. Patti LuPone, Zoe Lister-Jones, Nathan Lane, and Amy Ryan also stand out.
Beau is Afraid is by far Ari Aster's most complex, inaccessible film to date, although guilt, extreme anxiety, and an intricate mother-son relationship are clear themes deeply explored across five sections - the second is one of the most mesmerizing, visually stunning sequences of the year. The more I think about what I watched, the more I admire the unique, thought-provoking, overwhelmingly surreal storytelling by one of the most authentic voices working today. That said, the three-hour runtime feels really heavy, the analysis of the movie as a whole raises some issues, and while all the technical departments are award-worthy, stating "it's not for everyone" is a perfect description of one of the most divisive films you'll see in a long while.
Manuel's Rating: B-
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