Vague Visages’ Beau Is Afraid review contains minor spoilers. Ari Aster’s 2023 movie stars Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone and Amy Ryan. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Beau Is Afraid is a three-hour ordeal of a film. It’s ambitious and passionate but also messy with an air of confusion. Ari Aster’s 2023 release is a more-or-less continuous narrative that could have functioned as easily as an anthology film. It’s more legible through the lens of a five or six-act structure than three because it takes four or five dramatic concepts and staples the odyssey together with the theme of alienation and anxiety born of an unhealthy maternal relationship. Beau Is Afraid uses satire and tonal shifts in a jumbled, if not wholly incoherent, fashion. Aster directs a huge team of artists and artisans to construct a flailing project about suffering and indecisiveness.
Aster’s 2023 film is a step away from the “elevated horror” of Hereditary and Midsommar with its blunt commentary on the Oedipus-Electra complex. Beau Is Afraid follows a man (Joaquin Phoenix as the title character) who disappoints his mother (Patti LuPone as Mona) through little fault of his own; he’s developmentally crippled by the emotional trauma of parental manipulation and emotional abuse. Beau Is Afraid pulses and leaks with metaphors; it’s rife and lousy with the stuff. Aster is seldom subtle while playing with hypnosis as a storytelling tool.
Beau Is Afraid Review: Related — Know the Cast & Characters: ‘The Fabelmans’
As Young Mona, Zoe Lister-Jones has much more to do in Beau Is Afraid than she does in my other least-favorite movie of the year so far, A Good Person. Therefore, the American actress is more engaging, despite some goofy lines. Nathan Lane (Roger) and Amy Ryan (Grace) star as a couple that rescues Beau in a time of need and come to make him regret it quickly by way of their neglected menace daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers), and their late son’s deeply-disturbed former comrade-in-arms, Jeeves (Denis Ménochet). Richard Kind plays Dr. Cohen, Mona’s attorney and a harsh judge and critic of Beau. Parker Posey (Elaine Bray) and Julia Antonelli (Teen Elaine) play an elusive love interest. Stephen McKinley Henderson portrays a therapist who prescribes anxiety medication to the title character and inadvertently makes him anxious about it.
Phoenix devotes to his character’s expression of fear — the marker of the man’s identity. Part of that fear is conveyed through the film’s sense of distrust about people, which comes across as its tone holds humanity in generally low regard without implying that the protagonist represents the belief system of the director. Where the camera is pointed and how a film is lit, along with what the characters say and how the scenes are cut, don’t necessarily reveal the soul of the director and his collaborators, but rather express what they are trying to convey artistically.
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The unexplained mayhem, turmoil and cruelty of the world around Beau intends to situate the audience within the worldview of the character but never shifts beyond it. The clear explanation for this is that the heightened, exaggerated reality doesn’t need to be literal to the real world in order to be true to Beau’s. Aster’s film is thusly a showcase for various ways that one might view the world when experiencing anxiety. There’s also a lot in Beau Is Afraid about a nuclear family as an expression of an idealized communal tradition rather than a traditional expression of human relations under capitalism. Moreover, there’s much to consider about how the wealthy profit through the deprivation of cities, and how the suburbs find moral superiority and emotional comfort in the parsing out of charity. There’s also just a smidge of curiosity about the surveillance state.
Aster’s depiction of the inner city feel exhausting in Beau Is Afraid. His aim to express anxiety and insecurity in an urban setting comes across as directionless satire; it gestures toward social points but doesn’t develop them because the aim of the film is focused on the individual experience of mental anguish and despair.
Beau Is Afraid Review: Related — Know the Cast & Characters: ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’
A series of animation sequences mark the structural center of Beau Is Afraid, along with a fable which operates as a mirror meta-narrative that calls reality into question — a sort of parallel to a similar dream-prophecy sequence in The Green Knight (2021), albeit with the opposite effect. Some viewers will be excited by the film’s boldness and the commitment of its writer-director auteur. I find Beau Is Afraid to be intellectually stimulating yet unfulfilling. Its creative visuals are commendable, as are its ability to convey physical tension. Less commendable and more unexpected is the undercutting of drama, suspense and tension with low-hanging humor, though Aster’s film isn’t completely witless.
Beau Is Afraid trips over itself during the climax. The film doesn’t necessarily need to be shorter — it’s just a long and expensive public therapy session with an overcomplicated script. There are multiple scenes that deal with aquaphobia, and the viewing experience often feels like being held underwater. Beau Is Afraid may have hypothetical social value for the sorts of parents that won’t see or learn anything from it, though it may be more likely to communicate catharsis to their long-suffering children. If Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Fabelmans were one film, complete with the excesses of both yet without the charm, that movie would be Beau Is Afraid.
Kevin Fox, Jr. (@KevinFoxJr) is a freelance writer, editor and film critic. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine and People’s World. Kevin has an MA in history, loves audiovisual entertainment and dreams of liberation. Check out his Substack at kfjwrites.substack.com.
Beau Is Afraid Review: Related — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘The Fabelmans’
Categories: 2020s, 2023 Film Reviews, 2023 Horror Reviews, Comedy, Drama, Featured, Horror
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