Released 2023. Director: Ari Aster
ARI ASTER'S THIRD MOVIE IS A COUSIN of Hereditary and Midsommar. All three of his movies delve into the horror and trauma experienced by a character in some dark unreachable place. Visually assured and thematically bold and defiantly challenging, Beau is Afraid is an enigmatic and completely out-of-the park curiosity that, like Hereditary, also has the shadow of a mother looming large and foreboding over everything that goes on. I wouldn’t put Beau is Afraid in the horror genre though I’m sure Joaquin Phoenix’s character would disagree. He spends a lot of time in abject terror, and I’ll try to tell you why.
Beau sees a shrink for professional help to deal with a complicated upbringing under the watchful eyes of his emotionally intimidating widowed mother. He has made plans to return home to see her for the anniversary of his father’s death, something sacred they do every year. Beau oversleeps, has his keys and luggage stolen and misses his flight. His mother is upset by the news while Beau tries desperately to deal with a different crisis. All through the night, someone in his apartment building has been slipping increasingly hostile notes under his door. The distraught Beau later finds himself locked out of the building and his apartment invaded by the hordes of homeless junkies who roam the street like a menacing army of zombies. Then he finds out his mother is dead, hit by a fallen chandelier.
This is only the beginning and Beau’s anxiety continues to rise as he’ll get caught up in one sticky situation after another. A man hiding under the ceiling crashes into Beau in the bathtub. Beau runs stark naked into the street and is hit by a van before being kept under surveillance (in other words, kidnapped) by a suspiciously benign couple played by Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan.
Making matters worse, the angry and suicidal teenage daughter of Beau’s hosts is hellbent on further torment. There’s also a volatile veteran with PTSD living with the family with his eyes (and rifle) trained on Beau as the hapless man mounts a daring escape. In a nearby forest Beau is taken in by a theatre troupe enacting a play uncannily echoing his own life. Finally staggering home through long-distance hitchhiking, Beau has missed his mother’s funeral and yet bizarre events continue to unfold and yes, Beau still has reasons to be unnerved and jumpy.
Beau is Afraid recalls aspects of a Charlie Kaufman creation, with reality skewed just enough to appear surreal yet remains grounded in its twisted logic, though it takes time to swallow because of the perverse underpinnings. The aim is to keep Beau in perpetual misery for the entire duration and the wretched man has no idea why or how to extricate himself from an unending nightmare. The man can’t even have a bath in peace or have sex without causing sudden death.
Joaquin Phoenix, with thinning hair and in constant distress, is a jittery bundle of neuroses. His all-consuming performance as the terrified Beau is a world away from the provocative Arthur Fleck in Joker and totally unrelated to the love-struck Theodore Twombly in Her, just to name two of his polar opposite characters.
Beau is a manifestation of fear, but fear of what exactly? Is Beau an aggregate of male insecurity? Is he a poster-boy for men who struggle mightily against life’s demands and expectations, middle-aged and nothing to show for? A loser scarred for life, a constant disappointment to his mother, wrapped in guilt and shame?
In its fantastical and borderline surrealism, the movie is an open book to many interpretations. What’s it about? Emotional blackmail, psychological manipulation, family dysfunction, noxious dependency, misguided kindness… It’s no wonder Beau is always on the brink of a breakdown.
Given its bizarre nature, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (who also worked with Aster on Hereditary and Midsommar) grounds the sense of un-reality in recognisable settings. Even when weird stuff happens you get an eerie feeling it’s not someone’s bad dream but just misfortune. This is unlike, say, Terry Gilliam’s far-fetched satirical vision in Brazil, though Beau is Afraid can be described as sharing a similar plane in terms of its absurdity and hyperbole, especially when Beau finally discovers the truth about his family and finds himself on trial for being a bad son. When metaphors become literal, crazy doesn’t describe it.
Beau’s treacherous journey home to his mother is one extended exposure of a psychological wound, a spinning rabbit hole where Aster drops his protagonist and lets him dig deeper. Wildly imaginative and wholly unpredictable, countless plausibilities spring from a rabid narrative designed to escort an anxious man to farewell his mother. This movie should be reviewed by a psychiatrist.
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