Ari Aster‘s BEAU IS AFRAID is a lot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. In this epic anxiety-ridden tale, viewers will be taken through a litany of what-the-heck moments that dysregulate one after the other. If I were to sum up the film in one sentence, I’d say it is the embodiment of, “Well, this escalated quickly.” With that said, the film is likely to polarize with its unreliable character perspective. However, no one can deny that BEAU IS AFRAID leaves a lasting impression.
BEAU IS AFRAID follows Milquetoast Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix). Single, perpetually unhappy, and afraid, Beau lives alone in a not-so-great neighborhood. He visits his therapist (Stephen Mckinley Henderson) regularly, with most sessions focusing on his mother. It is a phonecall with his mother (Patti LuPone) that truly pushes the nerves along. After an overwhelming 24 hours following a call with his mother, Beau finds his reality converging into chaos. From beginning to end, Beau’s journey takes us on a whirlwind ride of anxiety that will likely leave you buzzing long after the credits roll.
Each chapter in Beau’s journey is markedly different in style and feel. What is consistent is the gradual decline of his being a reliable narrator. The narrative takes leaps and twists that are often read as a derailment. In the context of his paranoia and fear, these leaps make sense, but it takes time to acclimate. A major success here is the lack of predictability in the narrative, even when boiled down to the simple motivation of wanting to get home to his mother, which keeps viewers on their toes.
Strength in performance
Part of the glue that keeps us from turning away is the sheer dedication Joaquin Phoenix has in embodying Beau. We are there with him through his journey in unraveling his stagnation. Beau is quite pathetic, but you can see how he was made that way by the end. Regrets, fears, dreams; Phoenix takes us easily through all of them and doesn’t flinch regardless of the scenarios Aster smacks him in the face with. All eyes easily stay on Phoenix throughout.
The supporting cast is no slouch. Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan balance the dark humor elements well, but there’s a trace of the insidious underneath that will raise hackles. Kylie Rogers as Toni is balls to the walls nuts and will remind you why you should never have kids. Denis Ménochet is equally concerning as Jeeves. Armen Nahapetian is brilliantly cast as a young Beau before his mother has completely ruined his psyche. Patti LuPone will scare you and make you want to apologize for all sorts of sins. Parker Posey, for what little screen time she has, leans into the humor until the climactic end.
With everyone firing at all cylinders, it’s no wonder we’re kept hooked throughout the course of three hours. Aster’s playing around with various levels of intensity, ranging from dark comedy to the absurd to the horrifying, provides enough unpredictability to keep audiences guessing. It’s easy for the plot to get drowned out in such a scenario, and that’s not to say that all the various elements don’t get overwhelming. They do overwhelm. However, Beau’s drive to do whatever he can to get home to his mother never gets lost in the process. That is ultimately what grounds everything here.
The beauty of BEAU IS AFRAID
It wouldn’t be an Ari Aster film without beautiful architecture and cinematography. No expense has been spared in the details. Whether in a downtown area with graffiti scrawled all over the walls to an upper-middle-class suburb to a woodsy theatrical enclosure, each space is fully realized and distinct. This makes the separation between chapters easier to differentiate too. To all of the departments that handled the visuals, whether from costumes to production design, art direction, etc., you all deserve a massive round of applause. A particular shoutout to those that handled the animation sequence in the film as well.
As has been the case with his previous films, BEAU IS AFRAID won’t be for everyone. It’s strange. Delightful. Hilarious. Cringe. Overwhelming. Beautiful. Horrifying. Enlightening. The list of adjectives goes on and on. There’s no easy way to describe the film except a manifestation of anxiety from start to finish. For those hoping to experience something to react to, this film hits that goal in spades. I went in with no expectations and came back vibrating from the experience. It’s one of those films where it’ll hit each person differently.
While incredibly overwhelming, Ari Aster’s BEAU IS AFRAID is a sweeping epic that perfectly encapsulates anxiety in all its forms. It is an incredibly ambitious project. Regardless of whether or not people vibe with this film, it’s still nice to see projects that take giant swings.
BEAU IS AFRAID will open in theaters on April 14, 2023.