The latest film written and directed by Ari Aster while cleverly filmed, feels slightly convoluted in terms of the plot that can make it difficult to truly appreciate.
It takes an extraordinary film to leave me completely bewildered – a film that by equal measures I can’t figure what the intent behind the plot was and yet equally can’t stop thinking about. Beau is Afraid is one such film.
At three hours long, Ari Aster’s film is told from the perspective of Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle aged man who is weighed down by grief and anxiety (about what doesn’t really become clear even by the end) about to visit his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death – a date that increases as the film progresses. But there are complications as for the first 45 minutes, Beau is living in a nightmarish existence filled with violence and death that is brutal to see, but the mood and tone of the film changes slightly after he is involved in an accident and moves from the city to the suburbs, he finds himself recuperating in the comfortable home of surgeon Roger (Nathan Lane), his uneasy wife Grace (Amy Ryan), and his resentful teenage daughter (Kylie Rogers). Another adjustment then takes him to what seems to be a fairy forest and he is cared for by a kindly pregnant woman, and the final section sees a powerful confrontation that you won’t see coming. What it does it all mean? Well it does seem to be about the impact of fear has on our lives, but on a deeper level it is an examination parent and child relationships. The trouble is it throws so many issues at the audience, it ends up feeling completely incoherent and disorientating.
This may have been Ari Aster’s intention, highlighting the chaos and unexpected nature of life though the use of a number of cinematic techniques and styles to bring it all vividly to life (and boy it is vivid in places). Billed as a horror comedy, it would be fair to say that you get a healthy dose of both – albeit some of the images you see on screen are completely mind boggling. The film works best when it is at its quietest and most reflective, such as the section in which Beau is in the forest and introduced to a wandering theatre troupe that turns into examining what his life could have been like, with some beautiful animations to help illustrate this. But the overall vibe of the film feels like fragments of different dreams that have been put together in a mixed way – and the long running time of the film means that it can be difficult to concentrate on which twist is coming next.
It is a real shame as there is such potential underneath the weirdness and if that was toned back a bit – this would be a compelling watch, particularly given the quality of many of the performances. Joaquin Phoenix delivers an understated but utterly heartbreaking performance as Beau who loves and is afraid of his mum in equal measures, Nathan Lane brings a lot of joy to the role of Roger, while Armen Nahapetian as teenage Beau gives wonderful depth and character to his performance. Equally as compelling to watch is Patti LuPone as Beau’s mother – who delivers one of the most chilling but brilliantly nuanced performances I have seen on screen for a long time.
While in terms of tone and plot Beau is Afraid is all over the place – there are moments of brilliancy and the constant twists and turns will certainly keep the audience on their toes. This is certainly a film that messes with your head and makes no apologies about it. For my part, I appreciated the artistry and imagination but I can’t quite say I enjoyed it outright.
By Emma Clarendon
Beau is Afraid is out now in cinemas.