Ari Aster, are you okay? It doesn’t seem like it. Beau Is Afraid feels like tangible proof of that.
The picture trades in what you might call a horror movie (or is it just a psychological thriller? Perhaps just a museum of woe? A waxwork of trauma?) and, in return, delivers three gruelling hours of torture porn.
Not in the physical, bloody sense though. In the sense that, across the 179 minutes you’ll get a crash course in a lifetime’s worth of mother issues, and decades’ worth of regret and self-loathing.
Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is a perpetually terrified hypochondriac who is scared to look outside his window, let alone venture to the store across the street. His world is full of horrors, monsters, threats, unknowns and a constant, palpable display of panic. So when his mother insists he visits her across the country, his world begins to unstitch.
Because of the opaque and unsustainable nature of Beau Is Afraid, Phoenix’s impossibly impressive performance will likely be ignored by its viewers – but he is impeccable.
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The Oscar-winner completely dissolves into the nervous wreck of a character and delivers a truly primal and visceral experience for the big screen. It’s uncomfortable to watch. I couldn’t peel my eyes off his completely skin-crawling performance. Honestly, Phoenix was far better in Beau Is Afraid than he was in Joker, but that’s hard to pitch when the picture itself is so… swamped with ideas.
That’s maybe the biggest problem with Beau Is Afraid. It has twelve ideas a minute; from suicidal teens, kidnap fantasies and giant appendages to hand-painted storyboards – and half of them are great! Beautifully brought to life, in fact.
But trying to keep up with the meandering narrative is like playing basketball with a tennis racket – completely wrong place, wrong time.
Aster is, obviously, a profound creative whose ideas are completely original, and I really respect him for showcasing something that no one else could have ever dreamed up. He’s perhaps one of the few working directors who do not feel like he’s using the building blocks left abandoned by other filmmakers.
And his skills with the lens Are exceptional. He somehow contrasts the disgusting rapture of Beau’s life with beautiful vistas and endless colourways that are vivid and exciting.
Although Aster is incredible with his camera, the overarching story detracts from the glimpses of wonder and beauty he draws your eye to.
But… that kind of doesn’t matter.
Viewers will walk away from Beau Is Afraid knowing, intimately, just what it’s like to both love and loathe your mother intensely. How it might feel to completely distrust your own instincts and beliefs. To know you aren’t worth anything because every ounce of love you’ve ever received has come with a set of strings, conditions, and stipulations. It’s 10,740 seconds of failing to deal with your issues, and compounding them by having children and offloading your complexes into them instead of growing. Beau Is Afraid is a blueprint on how to ruin a life. Beau Is Afraid made me feel regret.
But maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps Aster just set out to make a movie that lasts 12 percent of a day and is serially confusing, stilted, and overwrung to the point of nausea. Maybe he wanted to bring to life the bleakest possible world I’ve ever seen on the big screen and (literally) paint it with the brightest colours imaginable. I just don’t know.
What I do know is that this is, easily, Ari Aster’s strongest and weakest entry yet. And – while it is his most personal work – its authenticity and familiarity do not create a worthwhile viewing experience; even if its Oedipal and castration obsessions could be studied for years to come.
I’ll probably never watch Beau Is Afraid again because of how it made me look at my own life. Ari Aster might deem that a success. I call it an expensive therapy bill.
Beau Is Afraid hits cinemas May 19.