Beau Is Afraid review – no cure for childhood trauma in Ari Aster’s latest
The new nightmare from the Midsommar director is alternatively intense, chilling, and anxious, though is let down by a laggy middle
Home is an open wound. This is true for Ari Aster’s Hereditary, and even for his Midsommar (“Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?”). In the haunting presence of trauma and grief – be it for the past, present, or a possible future – Aster’s characters are trapped between their own projections and the actual world. What rings true to the human condition in general becomes a sleek, captivating version of hell in the American filmmaker’s anxiety-ridden universe. In this regard, Beau Is Afraid seems like the crown jewel.
Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) is in his late forties, or maybe even early fifties (visibly), yet he flinches when his phone lights up with “Mom” calling. He is not eloquent, even in front of his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and rarely uses full sentences. A muffled voice, a worried expression, mouth agape: Beau is definitely afraid.
It would be a great understatement to say that the film has Oedipal implications – in fact it is nothing if not Oedipal. From the opening scene which mimics a birth from the newborn’s point of view to the symbolic role of a certain cave towards the end, the film will tick all the “womb” and “phallus” boxes one would expect. It’s often jarring, reading all these images so literally, but Aster’s artistic strategy here is certainly innovative, even if it flattens any attempt to be an “elevated” something (horror? comedy? psychological thriller?).
Clocking in at almost three hours, the film certainly lives up to an entertainment challenge…. at first. But after a very intense, paranoid, anxiety trip in its first part, the middle lags and lags. The challenge is laid out in the script: how to provide a narrative drive that would turn into a perpetual mobile for such a demanding watch? Aster has to think on his toes and has his character jumping through hoops and facing situations that seem safe, but all go terribly, uncannily wrong. No single example could convey how tight and tangled everything in this film is. A frantic minefield of a plot leaves us feeling like not only fate, but also the world, with its grotesque hostility (stabbing, gunshots, corpses left to decompose on the street), conspire against Beau, underscoring his tragically-comic lack of agency. Not unlike Oedipus himself.
Impossible to retell and a bit too intellectually-sound to psychoanalyse, Beau Is Afraid feels like an epic. In all its crafty dedication to completely immerse the audience in the point of view of an extremely anxious, repressed, suffering man, it elicits empathy and laughs in almost equal measure. Toeing the line between the comic and the soul-crushingly grotesque may be another staple of the director, but even Beau’s world of mommy issues can get tiresome. This is why we have Patti LuPone as Beau’s mother, Mona, an absolute show-stealer, and Parker Posey as his lost love interest Elaine, bringing out the little warmth Phoenix’s character has in reserve. But as with all characters and events in the film, we never know whether they’d exist outside the protagonist’s projections.
There’s something soothing in this nightmare of a film, but it’s found in the least likely places: in a teenage romance cut short, in the realisation of a recurring dream, in the literalisation of all those symbolic images of psychosexual power. Somehow, with all its ornaments and often illusory grandeur, Beau Is Afraid feels real. At least if you count yourself a (very) anxious person.
Beau Is Afraid is released in UK cinemas on 19 May.Where to watch