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'Beau Is Afraid' Review

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April 23, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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Beau Is Afraid is hilarious. It’s also cruel. It’s hilariously cruel and cruelly hilarious. It’s a movie that can’t be boxed into any one genre. It’s bound to puzzle anyone who happens to get in its way, which has already happened to theater owners, as the trailers for Insidious: The Red Door and Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City preceded the screening.

Mashing up genres isn’t something new for writer/director Ari Aster, who, along with Robert Eggers and Jordan Peele, has become the poster child for new-age horror. For all its dismemberment and devil worship, the core of 2018’s Hereditary centers on a family working their way through tragedy. And Midsommar, which quelled the doubts of a sophomore slump, was essentially a relationship drama that also happened to have hallucinogenic drugs and pagan burning rituals.

Aster is cashing in all the checks he generated from those two previous films for Beau Is Afraid. The beast inside of him has been fully unleashed, resulting in a clusterfuck of a film that defies conventional wisdom and lobs neverending subversive curveballs on the audience it preys upon.

Bleak would be the world's biggest understatement for how Aster paints the American inner city. People record and post others jumping from tall buildings to commit suicide, assault rifles are sold at kiosks like phone cases, and homicidal maniacs freely roam the streets. The only person who seems to have a decent bone in their body is Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle-aged balding man with more neuroses and diagnosable mental problems than he has fingers. 

His biggest loves and fears come from his mother (Zoe Lister-Jones and Patty LuPone), who never ceases to weaponize her affection into the world’s worst guilt trip. Despite several calamities coming together to prevent Beau from visiting his mother this weekend (one being a wild brown spider that has already killed a person in his apartment complex), the hearing of the stinging words “it’s fine” from her is enough for him to make the Odyssean trek. Of course, the temperature for this hellish Earth only gets hotter from there, as Beau’s journey only seems to get worse as time goes on.

At a reported cost of $35 million, Beau Is Afraid marks A24’s most expensive production to date. While you question the logic of any executive who greenlit this monstrosity, you also have to give respect for handing a demented filmmaker like Aster this big of a check. Elaborate set pieces create this nightmare world, which Pawel Pogorzelski (continuing his deep relationship with Aster) captures vividly with his camera. It’s a visual mashup of both Hereditary and Midsommar, as the dark and the light come together as a sort of lucid dream. And with 179 minutes at his disposal, Aster has all the time in the world to transfer his acid-laced rationale over to you. Eventually, the batshit lunacy and twists begin to make perfect sense.

But just because they make sense at the moment, it doesn’t mean that they all work together. For all the things that happen to Beau, and for how much Phoenix dives headfirst into the role, he really isn’t that interesting of a character. He’s more of a listless guide taking us through the upside-down amusement park, reacting with bewilderment at every turn. It’s a bit of a guessing game for what it all means and if it comes together as satisfying as it should. Thankfully, the side characters that interrupt this ride are pitch-perfect, including an eerily helpful Nathan Lane and scene-stealing LuPone. 

The cult of A24 may be growing to worrying levels, as people now begin to clap at the sight of the signature logo that bookends each of their features. It’s also not the most artistically pure idea to have merchandising and memes made out of experimental indie films from interesting filmmakers. But if all those Hot Dog Finger Gloves and Pet Rocks in the Everything Everywhere All at Once store supplied the quickly-burnt cash needed to make Beau Is Afraid at this scale, then I guess this trend can go on for a little longer.

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