Ari Aster, the man behind the nightmarish horror films Hereditary and Midsommar, is back for his difficult third film. Some of his genre contemporaries have already experienced divisive third outings. Opinions were mixed about Jordan Peele’s Nope, while Robert Eggers had trouble with a bigger budget in The Northman. Can Aster succeed with Beau is Afraid, a more comedic tale?
Joaquin Phoenix stars in the title role of Beau, a neurotic and paranoid man who is over reliant on medication and the approval of his mother (Patti Lupone). When he misses his flight to see her on the anniversary of his father’s passing, he embarks on a surreal and anxiety-ridden journey through his worst fears. There’s an element of The Emporer’s New Clothes about Aster’s dense psychological puzzle.
Some may see a dozen different meanings, gleaning messages about pharmaceutical dependency, parental relationships, and mental health. Others may just see a lot of confusing scenes that tell you nothing. In a sense, both perspectives are valid.
The film happily sidesteps any formal convention to make a visually stunning, but narratively stressful experience. Oedipal themes are hammered home, but Beau’s experiences are so wild that there’s little indication as to what audiences are meant to take from this.
Phoenix delivers a big performance that would seem hammy in any other context. Aster does an excellent job of showing you the world through his nightmarish perspective, so that all fellow cast members like Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan have to do is chuckle in order to deliver the worst kind of chills.
At just under three hours, Beau Is Afraid can be tough to stick with due to its tendency for self indulgence. That said, Aster remains a filmmaker with a singular vision, and a talent for poking at our inner most anxieties.
Beau is Afraid is in cinemas now