The first thing to say about Ari Aster’s third film is that it is insane. So, it’s fitting that it begins in a psychiatrist’s office. There we meet Beau, a man whose chronic fears keep him locked in a state of passivity. In the context of a psychiatric consultation, Beau’s issues look like private struggles stemming from his irrational feelings of guilt. But as we watch him venture out into the world, we quickly come to share his fears and recognise that it’s not just Beau that has issues. It’s everyone.
If the events of the film are to be believed (and that’s a question it might be best not to ask), then everyone in Beau’s apartment building, his neighbourhood, the greater city, and possibly the whole of America is in a state of desperate suffering. Rampant emotional and antisocial issues leave the characters in Beau’s world constantly guzzling medications to remain functional. The madness follows Beau on an increasingly surreal odyssey that takes him out into the dangerous world and leads to unsettling discoveries about his past and future self.
Grossing US $10 million at the box office against a budget of US $35 million, the film has not paid off for A24. It looks like the production company gave Aster the green light to follow his creative vision wherever it took him on this film. That may have been thanks to the critical and commercial success of his previous works of high impact psychological horror, Hereditary and Midsommar. Personally, I’m pleased to say that Aster didn’t hold back. The film is a three-hour onslaught of batshit surrealism and palpable anxiety. It’s a rare treat to find something this weird screening at Dendy and other mainstream cinema chains. But we also get to see the limits of the film’s thematic reach. In the final hour, the details of Beau’s psychological torment are spelled out ever more explicitly as an excuse for tacking on more outrageous sequences that are progressively less impactful.
On the plus side, Beau is Afraid gives the most complete picture yet of Ari Aster’s character as a filmmaker. His fixations with things like head trauma and dysfunctional Mother/Son relationships have not gone away. The film also matches Aster’s previous projects and their unique flavour of unnerving horror crossed with hysterical dark comedy.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers the kind of performance that few would be capable of. He manages somehow to bring a simmering intensity to every scene while playing an almost completely inert character. Visually and sonically, the film is consistently inventive and stunning. Even the hybrid animation sequence that seems to serve no purpose to the story manages to be a highlight, purely because it is such a powerful piece of cinema. By the time it arrives around the middle of the film, you may find, as I did, that you are willing to go along with whatever wackiness the film dares to throw at you.