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Review: ‘Beau is Afraid’ is 2023’s First Masterpiece

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Ari Aster has been a big name in genre film for a while now. His illustrious career as writer-director began with the semi-viral horror short The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, rolling into his debut feature, horror smash hit Hereditary, and then only growing bigger with the release of 2019’s Midsommar. Rather than continuing down the path of making critically acclaimed slow-burn horror, Aster decided to pull out the rug from all of us in his latest film, Beau Is Afraid.

Taken from a script Aster wrote nearly ten years ago and a short film made even longer ago, Beau Is Afraid diverts from the traditional horror trappings, at least partially. A strange, lengthy epic of sorts, allegedly cut down from an already gargantuan length of nearly 4 hours, Beau Is Afraid has already inspired and ground the gears of many opposing camps, one social media user infamously referring to the film as a “career-killer”. Although that is patently not true, given that Aster is gearing up to shoot his next film this summer, if this were his last feature, what a way to go out!

An unexpected journey in Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid

Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) is certainly afraid. Of everything, that is. The reclusive son of industry titan Mona Wasserman (Patti LuPone, played in flashbacks by Zoe Lister-Jones) spends his days in a dilapidated apartment in a city overrun by violence, only venturing out to speak to his kindly therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson). As he prepares to leave for the airport to visit his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death, tragedy and a run of bad luck complicate what was supposed to be nothing more than a simple trip. Stepping out of his apartment into the surreal reality in front of him, Beau is about to have the worst few days of his life.

From the dangerous streets to the caring arms of a benevolent couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan) and their daughter from Hell (Kylie Rogers), stumbling through the escapades of a traveling theatre troupe, reuniting with an old flame (Parker Posey), and, finally, a confrontation that will rock him to his core, Beau Is Afraid chronicles the journey of one extremely anxious man through all his deepest neuroses. By the time all is said and done, confusion is sure to abound for Beau and the audience. All one can do is sit in stunned silence. In other words, it’s an Ari Aster film cranked up to the highest level.

Beau is afraid image
Beau is Afraid starring Joaquin Phoenix. (A24)

Joaquin Phoenix at the center of a talented cast

The centerpiece of Beau Is Afraid is, naturally, another highly committed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Although his cowering vulnerability might recall his Oscar-winning turn in Joker, this is a wholly original turn from Phoenix, the Joker’s emerging narcissism is replaced by complete and utter terror of the world around him. He walks a delicate balance between gut-busting physical comedy and total empathy for this scared puppy of a human being he inhabits, a notion that extends to Beau Is Afraid as a whole.

Surrounding Beau is a slew of utterly committed side characters that make their mark. Patti LuPone and Zoe Lister-Jones as Mona give Toni Collette a run for her money in their spine-tingling turns as the icy matriarch of the Wasserman family. Meanwhile, Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan are an uncanny happy family with something discomforting lurking under the surface.

Then there’s Parker Posey, who makes a very memorable impression with her limited screen time, something that can also be said for performers like Richard Kind and Stephen McKinley Henderson. There’s a lot of bravery, and a lot of trust given over to Ari Aster’s vision by everyone involved. But how does that vision pan out?

A24 presents a nightmare comedy and demented fairytale

No one can accuse Beau Is Afraid of being a poorly made film. Painterly photography by frequent Aster collaborator Pawel Pogorzelski frames the story as something of a demented fairytale, supported by the lush score courtesy of Bobby Krlic that alternates between serene and discordant.

This is easily Ari Aster’s best work as a director too, as he locks you right into the headspace of the film’s much put-upon lead. Each new scene is another challenge for him to face. No matter how mundane or explainable on paper, each obstacle Beau encounters takes on the feeling of a new trial to overcome in a grand odyssey.

As the word odyssey entails, however, Beau Is Afraid is no short ride. By the time the credits have rolled, the nearly 3-hour runtime is felt and then some. The film’s irregular rhythm- treating each of Beau’s travels as its own episodic piece of the movie with its own pace is either going to be a bane or a boon for audiences. For me, it was very much later, lending an air of unpredictability. The script and its tone are going to cause even more spirited debate. Once again, I’m fully on board.

To watch Beau Is Afraid is to give yourself over to living in the “nightmare comedy”, as Aster puts it, of its lead character. The world around him can be perverse, vulgar, and violent, with only the briefest respites of magical realism to add calm to the journey.

Situations only get more ridiculous as they go on, with a streak of pitch-black humor that will appeal to those in the audience hungry for sheer madcap insanity. Again, it really depends on the taste of the specific audience member. Those looking for answers in the increasingly complicated spiral of Beau’s travels will leave with little clarity.

Moreover, Beau Is Afraid capitalizes on subjective experience. Its strong overtones of Freudian psychology, as evidenced by Beau’s very bizarre relationship with his mother, and an intentionally unsubtle depiction of anxiety, it feels built to elicit a knee-jerk reaction. Taken on its own, bizarre terms, Beau Is Afraid replicates the experience of the overwhelming experience of simply existing in today’s world masterfully.

My conclusions on Beau Is Afraid

The mark of a great film comes in many forms. For Beau Is Afraid, that feeling manifested in a wave of awe-struck silence I experienced watching the credits roll over a truly bold final shot. That silence turned into giddiness overseeing something quite unlike I’d ever seen before.

If stories are adventures of sorts, Beau Is Afraid is a grand one, one that’s destined for heated debate. I very much look forward to that conversation. Here’s my contribution: Beau Is Afraid is Ari Aster’s strongest work to date, and 2023’s first masterpiece.

My rating for the film:

★★★★★/ ♥♥♥♥♥

Beau Is Afraid releases on April 21, 2023! Are you planning to check it out? Let us know on Twitter or The Cosmic Circus Discord what you think! 

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James Preston Poole

James Preston Poole is a Houston-based writer who specializes in genre film, while also screenwriting and working on film sets whenever he can. He believes that as long as there’s someone out there to champion a movie, then there’s no such thing as “objectively bad.” James holds a Bachelor of Science in Radio-Television-Film from the University of Texas and owes everything to his friends, family, significant other Catherine, and their three-legged cat Trinity.

James Preston Poole has 20 posts and counting. See all posts by James Preston Poole