A Freudian Nightmare Comedy of Epic Proportions
Review: Beau is Afraid
A three hour “comedy” from the man who previously brought us such gut-busters as Hereditary and Midsommar is something that, at first glance for the uninitiated, would appear to be a joke in and of itself, not one of the best films of the year. But despite how absurd that premise may seem, Beau Is Afraid is the reason we go to the movies.
Ambitious, hilarious, awe-inspiring and completely twisted, Beau Is Afraid sees Aster refuse to lean backwards into the comfort of being simply a horror maestro, and firmly plants himself as one of the most urgent and exciting voices currently working in cinema.
Where pitch-black chuckles very rarely provided points of release in Hereditary, and a deeply morbid sense of humour underscored the entire narrative backbone of Midsommar, on Beau Is Afraid Aster shifts gear into the riotously hilarious and warped, best described by Aster himself as a “nightmare comedy.” And while the film is consistently hilarious from start to finish, it feels more in line with the literary tradition of the picaresque (think Don Quixote or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road). The neurotic and chronically anxious Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) embarks on an epic and surreal journey home after receiving news of his mother’s sudden and unexpected death, confronting his deepest and darkest fears and anxieties along the way.
The film is very deliberately broken into four acts, separated by instances of Beau either falling asleep or being knocked unconscious. The first act is the most outwardly comic, pitting an anxiety-ridden “loser” (Aster’s own description) against a world in which all of his most irrational and outlandish fears are realised in terrifying immediacy. Starting life as a 2011 short in which the titular Beau has his key stolen from his door, this feature expands that germ of an idea into an absurdist nightmare with naked knifemen, impossibly incompetent policemen, an aggressively demanding homeless population, and a series of events that follows the sort of logic that governs over our dreams (one of a number of comparisons I was able to draw between Beau Is Afraid and the work of David Lynch). It is in this section that the most laughs can be found in the most literal sense of the word, whether it is in situational comedy (picture the cringe comedy of The Office on ketamine), punchlines, some outrageous physical comedy, or in the countless detail-oriented jokes. Store names, background details, character traits, TV headlines, you name it; Aster packs in more laughs than one is able to keep up with on a first viewing.
The second section, in which Beau finds himself under the care of a family in their home, is where the film’s sense of humour starts to twist the knife a little further, and where some have noted that the pace of this three-hour film starts to drag. Much like the first section of the film, it feels like its own self-contained short with its own unique set of characters and dramatic arcs. Kylie Rogers stands out in this vignette as the gleefully mean-spirited Toni, daughter of Roger (Nathan Lane) and Grace (Amy Ryan), whose arc provides the film with one of its darkest, nastiest punchlines.
To talk about the plot of the film any further than this halfway point would be to ruin the film entirely, and to betray the whole set-up/punchline structure of the film. But as the film moves forwards into its third and fourth acts, it reveals itself to be one big joke in and of itself at the expense of Beau – and perhaps even Ari Aster himself (much like David Fincher’s underrated The Game).
In the case of Beau Is Afraid, the first half of the film becomes something completely different in the eyes of the viewer once it has been recontextualised by the rest of the picture. Once this magic trick has been revealed, the film transforms into not just a Kafkaesque comedy of horrors, but something much more profoundly self-reflexive, sad and profound.
Familial and Jewish guilt has always been a background texture in Aster’s work, Hereditary being the most stark example. Beau Is Afraid uses this idea as its entire thematic backbone, and it is as a result of this that the film is simultaneously so hilarious and so heartbreaking. The spectre of Beau’s mother Mona (Patti LuPone) is omnipresent not just for Beau, but also the audience, and that feeling of being watched grows at an exponential level on repeated viewings. Nobody’s relationship with their mother is perfect, but the way that Beau’s worst fears, resentments and anxieties about Mona play out literally over the course of the film is sure to resonate with just about everyone, so wide and universal are the swipes and stabs this film takes. When Aster has reflected on this as a repeated idea in his filmmaking, he suggests that perhaps Beau is a completion of a trilogy about family trauma that sticks dynamite into Hereditary and Midsommar and blows it up, not to be revisited any time soon.
As that dynamite detonates and the film descends into the absurd, the surreal, and – at times – the grotesque, its most memorable images and moments of shock and awe come thick and fast. Beau certainly is a bold final statement on the subject of family, and one that would be deeply upsetting were it not for Aster’s tongue poking almost all the way through his cheek.
Your enjoyment of Beau Is Afraid will almost certainly depend on whether or not you are in on the joke, because without that subtext the film certainly is unwieldy and messy. But if you understand Beau to be, as Aster described, a “Jewish Lord of the Rings,” building to a punchline at the expense of Beau himself then I would wager that you will find Beau to be richly rewarding and consistently hilarious.
Beau Is Afraid Is Playing In Cinemas Now