Ari Aster continues his exploration of family and how it affects our existence in his new film, Beau is Afraid. While there are several moments in this film that could be described as horror, or at least “horrific” – it also demonstrates that Aster is good with comedic timing. Every frame of the film is full of things that will pay off to an observant audience member. The incredible lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix – mixed with incredible production design and bold directorial decisions – makes this an incredible yet clearly divisive film.
Phoenix plays Beau, who is seemingly afraid of everything. He is one of those paradoxical people who seem so miserable in their life, but is so determined to prolong it regardless. Everything is a potential cause of his demise, and thus he is driven to avoid nearly everything – or endure anything – to get through another day. The one thing that seems to cause him anxiety the most is his mother, but the fear of disappointing her supersedes it, and his quest to make it home becomes the focus of the narrative.
Aster creates a world that is only a slight exaggeration of the one we currently find ourselves in. After Beau leaves his therapist’s office, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, we see the insanity that seems to live on the streets. There are tables with various wares – for example, there is a teenager who is investigating a gun at a table labeled “Guns-a-Plenty”, and other such chaotic notes that are clearly hyperbolic stand-ins of our current cultural conflicts. Aster is holding up a mirror to himself and our world, and sometimes audiences don’t want to see the truth staring back at us. However, this movie is far more critical of a type of person than society as a whole, and it is this that will divide the audience. Those who find Beau is a little too much like them may be repulsed by the depiction – or, like myself – embrace the reality of our neuroses, and use the film as a means of analysis.
Even those who dislike this film will have a hard time arguing against its overall design. The film is gorgeous and incredibly stylistic. From the drabby apartment where Beau starts his journey to the house where the bulk of the final act plays out, there is so much to study and appreciate. Each set is meticulously designed, and is expertly used to help tell the story. Whether you love or hate Aster’s moves, it is impossible to deny his craftsmanship. His understanding of the form is in every frame, and those versed in cinema must appreciate Aster’s attention to detail. In the therapist’s office at the beginning of the film, Aster intentionally breaks the 180-degree rule after a question about Beau’s anxiety medicine. It’s a subtle change, but its implications are strong.
The truth is, Beau is Afraid is one of those films that will benefit from time and reflection. If you’re willing to ask the question “What is going on” and then truly attempt to explore it, the potential rewards are strong. To me, the journey on the surface was extremely fun and weird. It’s the thoughts afterward that make me love it.
Beau is Afraid is in theaters on April 21.
Rating: Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy.