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‘Beau is Afraid’ review: Between a mess and a masterpiece

Express News Service

You know how Rumi said that there’s a universe within us all. Well, then, surely, there are voyages and adventures within—and this is such a beautiful idea, isn’t it? Beau is Afraid is auteur Ari Aster following through with an uncompromising, almost inaccessible exploration of such an internal odyssey.

It’s a three-hour fragmented, half-frustrating, half-fulfilling unique experience; it’s a profoundly personal Freudian adventure that is less a story and more a character dissection of Beau Wasserman, a paranoid man-child, who may or may not make it to his mother’s funeral on time. And no, this isn’t a spoiler; in fact, I don’t think this is a film that can be spoiled at all even if I should sit you down for a three-hour narration of everything that happens in it.

It’s a film about feelings—specifically, concerning Beau’s relationship with his mother. Does he love her? Or does he wish she were dead? What about her? Did she ever love him? Was her love unconditional? Can it be? Should it be? Dozens of questions float about in the air, and the film allows you plenty of breathing time in which to reflect and process all this—perhaps a bit too much time, in fact. You might think that this film about a man with mother issues might be a drama, but no.

This isn’t a tragedy either. An adventure then, as we hinted at the beginning of this review? There’s no awe or adrenaline though. So, what is it then? The most accurate you can get is by calling it a tragicomedy (which is a compromise really), this extraordinarily indulgent exploration of Beau Wasserman’s mind which, while going everywhere, seems to be going nowhere—like Beau himself in this film.

Is Beau imagining things? Or are we navigating through his mind? Is there a real killer out in the open? Does someone really drink paint? Does the ‘reality’ of the events of this film even matter? This film about Beau’s fears takes you along into his discomfiting reality so full of guilt and paranoia. If you have seen Ari’s previous films, you already know his grasp over presenting horrors. There’s no supernatural this time (unlike in his last superlative film, Hereditary), and here, it’s not necessary even, given the gravity of emotional horrors. Beau is Afraid, in fact, makes Hereditary feel like a rather cheerful film.

At the start, Beau wakes up late for a flight (a horror many of us can relate to), and just this mini-scene, which moves from the horror on Beau’s face to the clock to the air-ticket, so immersively captures his breathless anxiety. 

From then on, the horrors mount and multiply. Accident, invasion, stabbing, sexual taunts, suicide… on and on it goes for three hours, as we gasp for some breath and respite from wading through the murky waters of a disturbed man’s nightmare. It all begins with the fundamental horror of being forced into existence into a strange, scary world of pain and screaming (which is the opening scene). And after three hours of feverish paranoia, it ends in an unforgettable collosseum-like court as Beau meets his judgement and is at once punished and relieved. Fascinatingly, none of these horrors exist to create dread or shock; there’s, in fact, a constant undercurrent of humour throughout. You see this in the signboards, you see this in the absurdity of Beau’s experiences, you even see this in the worsening of Beau’s situation… At one point, I found it hard not to laugh at a headless dead body.

It’s unpredictable and perhaps even incomprehensible. Every time Beau attempts to escape something bad, he ends up worse—and his horrible experiences coincide with the worst timing as well. 

The taps in his home run empty when he most needs water; his credit card won’t work when he needs it to—and the shopkeeper threatens to call the police; almost maxed out on anxiety, he finds that he can’t gain access to his home, while someone’s ransacking it… Mind you, all of this is five minutes in the film. This is the world of Beau is Afraid—a fatalist’s fantasy, a pessimist’s wet dream. In between, there seems some hope when he comes across a play being organised in a forest, one that’s mesmerisingly presented to us as a live-action character makes his way through an animated world—not quite unlike the film itself, I suppose.

It’s a film full of traumatic memories and hallucinatory horrors—and in combining them with Joaquin Phoenix’s thoroughly invested performance, we get a sense of who Beau is and why he is this way. We spot his innocence, we see his feeling of victimhood, and we get that all of this goes back to his relationship with his mother—and through this, we get a sense of the possible debilitating effects of that bond when it’s unhealthy. It’s a film that lends itself to all types of interpretations, but perhaps the best way to consume Beau is Afraid is not to interpret it at all and to simply submit yourself to its moments and allow yourself to reflect and feel. It might feel deep, confusing, or perhaps most likely, simply like a drag—for me, it was a bit of all of this. It’s hard not to feel frustrated at the overindulgence of it all, at the seeming lack of structure, at the film’s seeming lack of direction… but it’s as hard not to feel a sense of respect for delivering, in these cookie-cutter times, a genuinely original film full of auteur vision.

Beau is Afraid

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey, Michael Gandolfini, Amy Ryan, Kylie Rogers
Director: Ari Aster

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