Beau is Afraid is an extraordinary film that goes in all directions, sometimes to the complete incomprehension of the viewer. Continually, the viewer wonders what is real in Ari Aster’s third feature film.
This is a spoiler-free review of Beau is Afraid
A long sit
Ari Aster is already making his third full-length film based on A24. Which comes four years after the acclaimed Midsommar. It’s not surprising that it took so long for Beau is Afraid to come out, considering that Midsommar came out just a year after Aster’s first full-length film in the form of Hereditary. At the time, we wrote in our review of Midsommar that “Aster [het] made it his trademark to connect stories of psychological trauma with modern variations on classic subgenres.”
With Beau is Afraid, that actually happens again. The horror genre is parked for a while, but otherwise Aster continues the line he drew with his previous two films. In terms of length, too, we see similarities in this and he takes even more time than he already took with Midsommar. His previous film was a babbling brook, but Beau is Afraid is more like a bucket slowly filling up.
The film lasts 2 hours and 59 minutes, which I think is on the long side for a film like this. You do find yourself constantly interested in the next steps taken by protagonist Beau, played by Joaquin Phoenix, because of the suspense, but after an hour or two you do find yourself looking at the clock with a slanted eye. Then when you find out that there is still an hour to go, you wonder what else needs to be told. This feeling is especially reflected in the protracted middle section, which feels rather long. After all, the last segment of Beau is Afraid is just incredibly interesting, so cutting into that doesn’t seem like a good plan.
Beau is Afraid gets off to a flying start, by presenting a completely bizarre scene in which the viewer is completely taken into Beau’s birth. But then really completely, from the womb into the hands of his mother, Mona Wassermann. This is immediately one of the scenes that we know for sure actually took place. The other images that pass by in Beau is Afraid are dripping with surrealism. This is generally positive. Because Aster does not have to color within the lines, the film has become an outlet for all the creativity he has in his head. Countless styles pass by throughout the film, some more beautiful than others. At one point, there is a section of the film that takes place at a theater club located in a forest. Portions of the images that then pass by are almost completely drawn and we could really lick our fingers at that.
Beau’s continuing journey is one in which he searches for his mother, with one setback being greater than another. In part, this stems from the mental problems Beau has encountered in his life. At birth Beau does not cry because he is not yet afraid of anything. This soon changes when the doctor gives him a pat on the buttocks, because a baby is supposed to cry when born. Throughout his life, Beau’s development seems to slow down, until what remains is a somewhat pathetic middle-aged heap of man. How Beau is then portrayed by star actor Phoenix is amazing. Somehow you know Joaquin Phoenix is an excellent actor, with brilliant roles in Her, Joker and Inherent Vice. Yet, the moment you see it expressed again, only then do you realize just how good he really is. In a surreal setting, Joaquin Phoenix sketches the problems Beau Wasserman faces in a real-life way.
An abrupt ending
The ending of Beau is Afraid leaves the viewer rather flabbergasted. Where the bucket slowly fills up throughout the film, the ending feels like a slap in the viewer’s face. In fact, it’s so bad that as the credits roll you find yourself wondering if this is actually the end of the film.
This only heightens the feeling toward the question of what is real and what is not. Beau is Afraid is thus, like its predecessor Midsommar, not entirely suitable for the general public. I think it is quickly portrayed as an “odd film. After letting the film sink in a bit further, it actually made us think about the subject matter of Beau is Afraid, and that seems to be exactly what the celebrated director intended.
Beau is Afraid is an immensely long and unusual film with which Ari Aster on the one hand uses proven qualities from previous works, but also manages to reinvent himself in a new way. The film may feel a bit drawn out in the middle section, but it manages to compensate for that with the nerve-wracking middle and end. Joaquin Phoenix once again puts in a masterful acting performance as Beau, for that alone this film is worth seeing in the theater.