Ari Aster and A24 make for one of the most highly regarded pairings in modern horror. The prestigious indie distributor and rising writer-director made waves with Hereditary and Midsommar – two films that have already left a deep mark on pop culture and the greater horror lexicon. As such, Aster’s name alone carries a lot of weight, which is insane to think about for a filmmaker with only two features under his belt. This brings us to his next and third film Beau Is Afraid, wherein Aster departs from traditional horror in favor of surrealist black comedy. Without question, this is Aster’s most ambitious project to date, juggling a handful of tones with a story that jumps back and forth between decades of our protagonist’s life. Through its great ambition, though, this fascinating odyssey shows us both Ari Aster’s greatest strengths and weaknesses.
Ari Aster’s latest suffering subject is Beau Wassermann, a paranoid middle-aged man who exists in what can be best described as a heightened reality. The little solace he can find away from the deteriorating walls of his lonely apartment is in his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and the prescription pills he’s granted every visit. Our tale begins the day before Beau is set to leave the dangerous streets of his city, filled with all kinds of exaggerated violence and adultery, on a trip to visit the only family he’s got left in this mad world: his mother Mona (Patti LuPone). Beau’s mother is a wealthy business mogul but you wouldn’t guess that from his lifestyle or behavior. Painful familial trauma brews under the surface as Beau is anxious to see his mother again, no less leave the safety of his apartment and risk death in the nightmares that await outside.
Beau initially backs out of his trip due to dire circumstances, but when he soon discovers that his mother is suddenly the victim of a tragic fatal accident, he’s spun into a wild journey home against his own will. Per his mother’s wishes, he must make it in time for the funeral if she is ever to receive a proper burial. On his way home, Beau gets unfortunately sidetracked by the unspoken trauma of another disillusioned family – made up of world-class medical surgeon and father Roger (Nathan Lane), mother Grace (Amy Ryan), and daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers). Also, Beau takes a break with a theatre group of traveling nomadic orphans in the woods because why not. There’s even more absurdity to Beau Is Afraid than you can imagine. Yet, for as much as this is Ari Aster flexing his creative muscles to great effect, more doesn’t always mean better.
It goes without saying that Beau Is Afraid is most certainly going to be Ari Aster’s most divisive film. This comes down to a slew of reasons, however, the most damning of them all is the film’s nearly 3-hour runtime. Today’s conversations around lengthy runtimes in cinema go nowhere, as it’s mostly people refusing to engage with art. Beau Is Afraid, on the other hand, feels like what could be a 2-hour screenplay at most stretched out to the max. This results in very tedious pacing, making it seem like too much time has passed between key scenes. This tiresome runtime is detrimental to the absurdist tone of the script as well; whereas something crazy like a minor character committing suicide is meant to be oddly comedic in a super dark way, it instead comes off as confusing and far too bleak since your patience is already running thin.
For those who do manage to stay invested all the way through, it’s disappointing to say that the ending of Beau Is Afraid can also be seen from a mile away. It’s a little frustrating considering that, story-wise, Ari Aster already did something similar if not the same in his previous two films. You just can’t help but think if the movie was going to close like that anyway then it should have come way sooner. Fans who carry a deep admiration for Hereditary and Midsommar will surely find a similar kind of love for Beau Is Afraid while those who’ve never really clicked or have soured on Aster’s work will be repelled. With the film being based on his 2011 horror short Beau, Aster definitely doesn’t owe how to tell his stories to anyone. However, you would still hope he ventures into something more unfamiliar for his next project.
Despite its downfalls, Beau Is Afraid is nonetheless elevated by Joaquin Phoenix in yet another standout performance from his unparalleled career. The Oscar-winning actor brings the titular Beau to life with levels of empathy and gives an honest portrayal of a traumatized son wrestling with the demons of his past. Of course, we still get to see Phoenix’s hilarious pale-faced charm shine through when Aster throws him into the craziest situations. Though Beau does seek therapy and the need to take his medication does come up in the plot, this isn’t a brash portrayal of mental health like in 2019’s Joker. Ari Aster walks a fine line between whether the insane world around Beau is in his head or not. It mostly works as the insanity around Beau is portrayed as his trauma personified in an alternate fantasy rather than it being a literal side effect of his health.
Even if you walk away from Beau Is Afraid slightly unsatisfied, there are a handful of moments that are bound to stay with you forever thanks to Joaquin Phoenix and Ari Aster’s precise fusion of surrealism and horror. Aster’s latest film may not be traditional horror, but this absurdist adventure is filled with all kinds of monsters and pain. Beau Is Afraid carries Aster’s signature nightmarish atmosphere from start to finish, and in crucial scenes where all the tension builds up and breaks, you won’t be able to look away from the unimaginable horrors on screen. Armen Nahapetian and Zoe Lister-Jones, who portray younger versions of Beau and his mother in colorful flashbacks, do a great job of adding to this heavy tension as well. Meanwhile, Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan as a psyched-out married couple make the dark humor of Beau Is Afraid as hilarious as it can be.
Beau Is Afraid is Ari Aster operating on a whole new level. For all that may or may not work in the end, you’re left with a strong appreciation for Aster’s sheer filmmaking prowess. Obviously, this won’t be enough for some moviegoers as Beau Is Afraid will test their patience. But it’s hard to not admire some of this film’s merits when Joaquin Phoenix is yet again giving all of himself on-screen while Aster’s frequent cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Fresh) outdoes himself with sleek and epic visuals that never lose their sense of dread. See this in IMAX if you want a truly unforgettable experience. Especially when 2-D animation is thrown into the mix, Beau Is Afraid is both terrifying and awe-inspiring in ways only Aster could imagine. If the filmmaker pivots into more unknown territory with his upcoming Western, then perhaps he could genuinely take audiences by great surprise again.