Director: Ari Aster
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Ryan, Zoe Lister-Jones
During production and up until a few months ago, Ari Aster’s latest went by the name Disappointment Blvd. before early marketing revealed the switch-up to Beau is Afraid. This initially seemed a little inexplicable, but returning from the film it makes a kind of sense. Disappointment Blvd. would have left Sony, A24 and Aster open to some very easy potshots from the press; something entirely possible with a movie this singular in its approach and – one imagines – narrow in its appreciating audience.
Aster may have gotten himself a swift reputation thanks to the one-two punch of Hereditary and Midsommar, but he swerves here to the kind of ambitious, knotty, insular passion project that has been known to sink the careers of even the most feted indie darlings (that’s Richard Kelly waving from a passing iceberg). Ostensibly leaving the horror genre behind, Aster dives deep into some mommy issues for an occasionally inspired, more-often insipid three-hour anxiety dream.
Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) was born in 1975 with unusually large testicles. His mother Mona (Zoe Lister-Jones) doted on the boy. As they both grew older Mona became the CEO of a goliath corporation with heavy influence on the nation’s pharmaceuticals, while Beau became a customer; a victim of his own escalating anxiety. We rejoin him in the present, living in an absurdly violent inner city neighbourhood and a prisoner of his own guilt, fear and insecurities. He’s intending to fly home to visit dear mommy, but everything under the sun – including his own neuroses – is out to prevent him.
For a while this heightened universe of externalised irrationalities works for the picture. A confession. I’m an anxious person. I get it and I empathise. But there’s a crudity to Aster’s depiction here that wears thin after a short while. It doesn’t help that Phoenix puts in an unusually poor performance, remaining at roughly the same doddering and confused register throughout the movie’s three hours. I can connect with an overwhelmed and fearful person. I struggle more with a tiresome man-baby who has seemingly infantilised himself. Beau perpetually seems half-conscious. Watching him sleepwalk his way through Aster’s pretentious narrative loses it’s thrill.
Still, there’s enough technical prowess to keep the motor running a while, and particularly through the film’s most conventional episode, in which Beau finds himself housebound with a mildly more stable family unit. Charlie Kaufman-style kook is still lacquered on thick, but this overt hat-tip manages to illicit both curiosity and laughs, for the most part.
With some crushing inevitability, however, Beau is Afraid gets lost in the woods. If you’re under the impression that what unfurls is some kind of hallucinogenic road movie… well, that’s not really the case. Beau dawdles in a forest having been chased away from the suburbs, and here he finds refuge with a travelling theatre group. A sojourn into the play they’re performing in which Beau finds himself a principal character initially offers some flare, but it outstays its welcome and then some, overrunning into a somnambulist shaggy dog story that dares the viewer to just check out. Admission: I did. Worrying about bills took precedence over following Aster’s seemingly pointless detour. It’s a real shame, as this section also boast the always-great Hayley Squires, but one can pin-point it as the precise moment that Beau goes from fleetingly curious to an all-out turkey.
The last hour is interminable. Parker Posey is almost unforgivably wasted as a childhood flame of Beau’s grown older, while some third-act surprises collapse an already fraught narrative and bury Beau in a mire of Freudian freak-outs. Aster makes bold nods to auteurs like Gilliam and Lynch during this flatlining Oedipal odyssey, but shows none of the conviction of either. There’s no sense of emotional connection from him. Much like his impressive horror pictures, Aster feels above his own work, as though presenting it within a set of invisible quotation marks. Previously such distance felt like part of a tailored atmosphere. Here it just feels revealingly barren.
The conclusion is pure exasperation, plain and simple, and frankly feels like a deliberate attempt to rile the viewer. Aster sits atop his throne, laughing. Man, he really got us this time.
A brief list of things I fervently hope Aster has gotten out of his system now:
- People falling to their deaths on rocks
- People hanging around on the ceiling for some reason
- Weird attics
- Mommy issues
- Bad moms
Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski ensures frames are rich and handsome. Aster ups his predilection for hiding little details in the background. One assumes Beau is Afraid will reward its fans with all manner of minutiae that holds a greater significance on the second or third pass. But the number of those willing to indulge Aster may be far fewer this time around. I’m not often one to say it, but a speed-run cut of about half the length would’ve been much more preferable this time out. The precious moments here are too few and far between.
I am incredibly heartened that an industry still exists that might allow a passion piece like this to be bankrolled. Where an artist is free to flex their creativity. For all their faults its comforting when a Southland Tales or a mother! shows up.
I just hope that Ari Aster never makes this film again.