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  • Writer's pictureMatt Conway

Beau is Afraid: Review


Neurotic loner Beau embarks on an odyssey to reconnect with his controlling mother in Beau is Afraid.


A simple plot description of writer/director Ari Aster's latest endeavor cannot come close to describing the three-hour epic he's constructed here. Aster has quickly ascended the industry ranks, showcasing masterful composition and ingenuity in films that intensely wallow in dour conceits. His articulate perspective and haunting imagery propelled Hereditary and Midsommar into becoming cultural touchstones - a valiant achievement considering the challenging conditions facing most arthouse features.


Described by Aster as his "Jewish Lord of the Rings," Beau is Afraid represents the auteur's most ambitious swing yet. The film transforms its depiction of an alienated mother/son relationship into a surrealist voyage through torment and angst. It's also a work that guarantees divisive reactions from viewers. Some are already labeling it as a meditative masterwork, while others decry its existence as a pretentious piece of drivel.


I can see both sides of the coin here, but I could not help being entranced by Beau is Afraid. Aster conjures an evocative yet admittedly bombastic descent into the emotional hellscape of a man consumed by his mother's looming shadow.


Even detractors of Beau is Afraid will likely still appreciate Aster's singular craft. He conjures a personal story on the grand scale of a Herculian epic, placing Beau on an uncompromising pathway where he must confront his lingering insecurities. Aster glues Beau's journey together through fascinating vignettes, whether it's a nightmarish post-apocalypse New York or a theatric stageplay that colorfully highlights the inevitability of Beau's existence. Yet, no matter where Beau finds himself, Aster exerts poise and artistry at every step. The auteur displays a commanding hold of the camera through several evocative long takes and precisely framed moments, all of which land with compelling results. His well-tempered techniques help illustrate an uneasy atmosphere that gradually builds through each abnormal occurrence.


Perhaps what surprised me most about Beau is Afraid is how comedic the film is. Aster appears self-aware of his film's bizarre eccentricities, leaning into his pie-in-the-sky obtuseness similar to the vein of an over-the-top South Park episode. Thankfully, Aster always keeps a straight face through the mayhem. His ability to let the material speak on its own accord helps make it so effective, allowing the humor to undercut the potential pretentiousness of Aster's vast ambitions. I still find myself fascinated by his surrealist occurrences, such as a dysfunctional family dining on suppressive sedatives or maniacal characters who linger around the corner of Beau's life.


Where Beau is Afraid will lose some people is the film's long-winded approach to animosity and despair fueled by parental disconnect. It's debatable whether Aster's sprawling vision builds upon its central conceit or just shallowly meanders in the concept. Personally, I can connect to both arguments. Many of Aster's ingenuous quirks provoked a range of emotional reactions from me, but other narrative detours end up as didactic exercises in tedium. The hit-or-miss execution creates some unevenness across the occasionally bloated three-hour runtime.


Thankfully, Beau is Afraid always finds its way across the oft-kilter journey. I give star Joaquin Phoenix significant credit for grounding the material in authentic truths. The naïveté and yearning he injects in Beau embeds a childlike vulnerability as the character haphazardly stumbles across a nightmarish wasteland. A talented rogue's gallery of supporting actors, like Nathan Lane, Richard Kind, Parker Posey, and Patti LuPone as Beau's devilish mother, also deliver well-tuned performances as exaggerated caricatures.


I can't help celebrating Beau is Afraid's existence. Aster reaches for the cinematic stars in a film that will linger with viewers long after watching - no matter if you loved it, hated it, or land somewhere in between.


Beau is Afraid is now playing in theaters.


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