Joaquin Phoenix sits on a chair among people sitting on beach chairs.

Film Review: Beau Is Afraid

Film Reviews

Beau Is Afraid
Director: Ari Aster

In Theaters: 04.21

Following his two modern-classic horror films Hereditary and Midsommar, writer-director Ari Aster returns with Beau Is Afraid. The film is one of the most perplexing movies  indie darlings A24 have released. 

After Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) learns some startling news about his mother, he embarks on an odyssey through a waking nightmare akin to Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in an effort to reach her. Any further attempts to summarize Beau Is Afraid’s daunting, three-hour runtime is impossible. The film winds through a variety of settings, including a picturesque suburbia and a forest commune, before it sinks into the depths of Tartarus.

Beau is a deeply unreliable narrator. His anxiety and paranoia manifest on screen in a variety of ways, creating oscillating tones between absurdist, black comedy and eldritch horror. Aster’s humor, which crept into the fringes of his previous directorial efforts, is on full display here. While Beau Is Afraid is more nakedly a comedy, many will bristle at that characterization as Beau is also somehow more upsetting than both Hereditary and Midsommar combined. Though the filial trauma will be recognizable, fans of Aster’s previous work will find themselves in completely unfamiliar territory.

Anchored by the camerawork of Aster’s long-time collaborator, Pawel Pagorzelski, the film is a psychedelic feast for the eyes full of disorienting changes in focus, canted angles and extreme closeups that invoke Beau’s profound distress and disorientation. There is method to the madness however, as elements are subtly but deliberately framed early in the first act to be paid off in the third.

In the middle of the film, there is an extended, animated sequence that masterfully functions as a bridge between the heightened surrealism of the movie’s first half and the nightmarescape more prevalent in the second. Phoenix interacts with a combination of cardboard cutouts and hand drawn characters as a voice-over narrates a prophecy describing a version of Beau’s past and future. While the whole thing could be described as a bad trip, this sequence transcends even the surrealistic bounds of everything coming before and after.

More unbelievable than the unadulterated chaos unfolding onscreen is the fact that a highly successful studio would ever greenlight something like this. Everything Everywhere proved A24 was willing to take some risks, but I would die to have been a fly on the wall during this pitch meeting. Beau Is Afraid must be seen to be believed, and whether you love it or hate it, one cannot deny that Aster’s singular vision is one of the most undiluted artistic endeavors to receive a wide release. –Brandon Ermer

Read more reviews of A24 films:
Film Review: Midsommar
Film Review: The Lighthouse