Candid Cinema

‘Beau is Afraid’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Writer-director Ari Aster has always been a filmmaker who creates complex psychological narratives and visually explores the depths of the minds of his characters. He projects their fears and anxieties within the atmosphere surrounding them with incredible sound design that places the audience in the room with them. In Beau is Afraid, Aster sends his protagonist on a dark psychological trip through his anxiety and detachment from his mother as he tries to attend her funeral. In this tedious, bloated and overly long five-act film, Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) faces his darkest fears and how it all stems from how his mother treated him as a child. After working on this project for ten years, Aster’s ambitious three-hour-long, emotionally distressing character piece for Phoenix leaves you confused and drained. 

Unfortunately for Aster, this film feels disjointed because of all the nightmares fused. Beau has blackouts to stamp the end of an act as he re-enters a new nightmare with a memory of his mother treating him poorly. It’s that one memory that he builds on throughout the film as he gets closer to home. The first act worked incredibly well as we see how anxious he is about the community around him. Aster sets the tone for the severity of his anxiety with occurrences in his daily life. The cinematography, quick editing and sound design all work cohesively to build the anxiety. Once Beau leaves his apartment complex, the story gets lost because the same visual beats established for his anxiety weren’t carried over in the first section. Beau’s fears and Aster’s style change throughout the film, and that’s why each act feels exhausting. 

The deeper Aster goes into Beau’s mind, the more treacherous his fears get as they manifest into different situations with the people he meets. In the second act, Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane), who help heal his wounds after being stabbed, show parents who have had trouble filling the emptiness of losing their son Nathan. The maternal energy that comes through Grace confuses Beau, and here, we see how agreeable he is. He doesn’t make decisions for himself, and there’s a reason for that. After disaster strikes at their house, the third act pushes Beau into a forest, where he meets a theatre company. Here, he sits with his thoughts, and Aster uses the stage production to create a false narrative for Beau about his father. Through this dreamlike performative sequence with gorgeous animation, he feels like whatever his mother told him was a lie. 

Once Beau gets to his mother’s house, questionable decisions are made with the story that ultimately spiralled into obscurity that felt excessive. The original title was Disappointment Blvd, and after watching it the original title works better because of what unfolds in the film’s final act. Some sequences work well because of the technical aspects, but the story falls apart towards the middle due to the layered descent into his hatred for his mother. There’s a certain disconnect with Beau that doesn’t feel grounded, and there is a way to achieve that in a nightmarish environment. Ultimately, Aster explores the sins of the mother and how parents barely understand how their children view their parenting style when they’re younger. It becomes two-sided once the psychological damage is done. Aster’s script highlights the complexity of anxiety in parent/child relationships. But there is too much excess to even connect with Beau in the end. 


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