LUMI Reviews: Beau Is Afraid

07 June 2023

LUMI Programmer, Conor McCusker, brings us a spoiler-free review of Ari Aster's latest feature, Beau Is Afraid.

LUMI Reviews Beau Is Afraid

Beau is Afraid and so am I...

Ari Aster is a master of making me leave the cinema saying, “That was the most f***ked up, paranoia ridden, anxiety festering film that I have ever seen” since his first feature Hereditary in 2018. Walking out of a screening of Beau Is Afraid in 2023 was no different. Aster takes us on another venture into the outlandishness of spectacle with this defiantly polarising third endeavour. I tried to take notes whilst seeing Beau is Afraid in anticipation of writing this post. Upon review, they look and read like the incessant scrawlings of a mad man losing his grip on reality. Is this a telling insight into how I felt about this film? Maybe. This movie will test you and your ability to sit through 40-minute long set pieces that don’t advance the narrative. It will put your ability to laugh in the face of misery through its paces. Overall, it will strain your ability to withstand the absurd.  Buckle in and prepare yourself for the comedy of horrors that Beau endures on a journey home to his mother.

Beau Is Afraid is a film that will divide audiences, not completely down the middle, but rather slice every aisle and row into varying degrees of love and hatred. I’ll explain it with a crude simile, enjoying this film is like being an avid fan of getting punched in the face; it isn’t for everyone, and if you’re truly thrilled by it, you might be slightly unhinged. That said, if this film is for you, you will love it for the convoluted, word vomit plot, the nightmarish imagery and the comedic timing that hits out of thin air (even when witnessing one of the most horrifying father-son reunions you have ever seen, enter CGI Penis monster…). However, if this film isn’t for you, you will hate it for exactly the same reasons. As someone who was too young to experience Lynch and Cronenberg at their most bizarre and absurd in the cinema, is watching Beau is Afraid a comparable experience? I’m sure it would come close. The film follows main character Beau, who is on a quest to get home to his mother but in the process loses the keys to his apartment. A suspiciously simple premise. The plot infinitely expands from this point on. It proceeds to hurl new and existing fears, perfectly timed laughs and hauntingly shocking moments at you until the credits roll. This is a film so exhilaratingly intense that it is almost exhausting to watch. The audience members around me were letting out exasperated gasps at every shocking moment (until they began to get used to them two and a half hours into the run time). It will sweep you off your feet from the title card until the roll of the credits, with barely a moment to breathe in between.

The standout star of this film is Joaquin Phoenix as the eponymous Beau, his performance is mesmerising in a pathetic man-child way. Phoenix depicts a shielded and overprotected child decaying into a grey and vacuous man.  Phoenix is quite literally buzzing through the screen with the physical anxiety of this character. Amy Ryan (Grace), Nathan Lane (Roger) and Kylie Rogers (Toni) were superb in their roles of toxically positive (albeit unhinged) and mourning foster family to Beau. The performances of this film combined with how beautiful it is to look at it is one of its major strengths. If you go into Beau is Afraid thinking, ‘there definitely won’t be a technicolour Wizard of Oz inspired animated section in this film.’ you will be beyond surprised. The film itself is stacked with background props and gags. All locations and sets are brimming with background material aimed to amuse and/or to incite fear. Like all Aster films, the looming presence of dread and paranoia just out of focus of the camera are almost as terrifying as the horrors that appear to the audience in focus.

The hostility of every environment that Beau finds himself in can be seen as a reflection of his own anxieties within himself and in the world. The exhausting and impalpable feelings of fear and the lingering sense of doom are constant and unforgiving. In amongst the various horrors of the outside world that Beau is subjected to or subjects himself to, one scene has stuck with me. Beau and his trip to the “Beaudega” (aptly named) to buy water in order to get down his new anti- anxiety pills. It has some of the most realistic depictions of an anxiety-troubled agoraphobic in recent film memory. Anxiety usually fills a person with fear regarding situations that could happen but in Beau’s case, everything he fears will and does indeed happen to him. Outside the bodega there are people that would illicit fear in a person like Beau; criminals of all proportions, people in various stages of public emotional distress, vagrants of varying demeanours and most terrifyingly of all… a dancing street performer. The world building in this scene is vast. The city that Beau lives is a literal hell on earth. The city is teeming with hordes of residents swarming like locusts ready to destroy environments if given the opportunity. I would have loved to see this city expanded upon.

This is going to be a film that will make audiences ask themselves “what does this mean?” and “I’ll have to think about this and then decide my decision on whether I liked it or not”. In response, I would argue that it may be best not to involve this Oedipean odyssey of Freudian and Lynchian nightmares in a fruitless search for meaning. Meaning is subjective. I understood from this, some people will go to therapy. Other people will make a 3-hour long psychological horror comedy that subjects the masses to their unresolved mommy issues, psychosexual problems, crippling agoraphobia and transcribe it into a literal audio and visual hell for audiences to endure (And breathe...).

I enjoyed this hilariously absurd and brutally impactful film. For the majority of the run time, I watched this with my mouth agape as I genuinely couldn’t believe what I was watching. Something I haven’t done in the cinema in quite a while. If you can allow yourself to get lost in the chaos and quietly accept the madness, you just might enjoy the adventure that unfolds before you. It will stick with you long after it’s done.