Beau Is Afraid is a three-hour voyage through psychotic anxiety, brought to us by writer-director Ari Aster, known for his previous horror dramas Hereditary and Midsommar. The film focuses on a week in the life of one character, Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) a middle-aged loner returning to his childhood home to visit his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death. Structurally, the film is divided into four chapters, each set in a different location, exploring Beau’s darkest fears and fantasies about sex, illness, parenthood, money, society and death, presented in a kaleidoscopic collage of sitcom, cartoon, crime thriller, monster movie, and science-fiction odyssey.
In other words: a mind-blowing, genre-bending, bladder-testing three-hour sprawl of Oedipal angst, despair, and absurdist black comedy.
My take: Aster’s such a good director that it mostly compensates for his weakness as a writer.
I really liked chunks of this. Here and there it felt like the narrative was fumbled (victim of losing an hour?), a couple of big swings didn’t quite come off (e.g. a giant monster penis) and one chapter starring Nathan Lane felt and a genial suburban surgeon felt a little draggy, coming as it does after a high-energy bravura opening. I think Aster is a great director, but as a writer he’s undisciplined, derivative and facile. Beau, on more than one occasion, felt like a mangling together of Homer’s Odyssey with Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York (but without the grace of the former or the smarts of the latter).
And yet, I’m giving this four stars because when it works it really works; the opening, the love scene, the showdown at the house, the look on Beau’s face as he tries to make sense of one scene where he seems to have three kids despite being a virgin… all magical, and all worth seeing on the big screen. A Mariah Carey needle drop in the midst of an awkward love scene is just the right kind of gloriously cheesy – the mark of a director who knows exactly what he’s doing. Most importantly, Aster’s command of images edit, and sound all enable him to overwhelm the audience with some of the most anxiety-infused cinema you’ll ever see.
They may not amount a full three-hours’ worth, but these are moments of pure cinematic magic. Don’t miss them.
Beau is Afraid is out now in the US, and comes to the UK on May 19th.