What are movies at their very basic but images projected on a screen with accompanying sound? It’s just light reflected into our eyes. But it takes a gifted filmmaker to use every inch of that canvas and every decibel afforded to them, and to use it well. Ari Aster is one such filmmaker, whose stories, themes, and visual and auditory assaults have been equally lauded and derided. With his third feature film Beau Is Afraid, he’s stepping into uncharted, much darker territory than those established by his previous efforts.
Aster’s films Hereditary and Midsommar were at least grounded in some kind of reality where the concrete and the tangible cross paths with the supernatural and the occult. Beau Is Afraid dispenses with all of that, throwing us into a space where we can’t – or are too scared to want to – discern the real from the fantasy. An expansion of his short film Beau, this long, strange trip commands us to follow a broken man following a four-act path through the unknown, surrounded by the familiar and bizarrely foreign all at once.
Aster’s long-running plot devices of parental loss and themes of grief once again rise specter-like into view; however, Hereditary’s generational trauma and Midsommar’s death and renewal stay specific to those films. Here, the titular Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), a timid man who lives in one of the worst tenement buildings this side of David Fincher’s Se7en, is the victim of chaotic circumstances, the least of which seems to be the tragic death of his business magnate mother, Mona (Patti LuPone). All around his apartment, the building, and his visits to his therapist are scenes of absolute disorder and mayhem, ranging from how gleefully a cellphone camera-bearing witness hopes a suicidal jumper follows through to reports of a naked man armed with a knife the press is calling “The Birthday Boy Stab Man.”
The simple and childish nature of the name “Birthday Boy Stab Man” hints at a world that Beau has made for himself, which might explain some of what happens in this film. Is all the madness going on in his head? There’s some pretty severe stuff that’s going on wherever he turns – a tattooed man with alien eyes chasing him to his front door, a wild-haired man gouging out someone’s eyes, a teenager whose vitriol crosses into criminal intimidation, and much, much more – which can be explained by a latter-day society that’s forgotten how to be human, but it doesn’t explain others, like how he can observe himself past the point where he currently exists at that particular point in time. (You’ll see what I mean – not trying to spoil here.)
Beau seems to be in want of someone to take care of him, whether it’s his therapist, his mother, or someone else. No one seems to answer his pleas – the landlord, the locksmith he calls when his keys are stolen, or a policeman chatting up a local prostitute. Even the corner store proprietor threatens to call the cops on him when he’s frantically trying to pay for water. And when someone does provide the warmth and shelter he’s looking for, those scenes are undercut with chaos as well, either by people not truly being who or what they appear to be, or because a scene of respite comes with the price of its self-contained surrealism.
Through it all, Aster and Phoenix have us cradled well in their palms, guiding us to each act’s conclusion (so noted by fades or smash cuts to black) with linear action dotted by flashbacks that propel Beau on his trek back home. Phoenix gives the performance of a lifetime, injecting natural fear and confusion into his every step forward. At one point, Beau’s brain is so completely fried from the events which have taken him to places he probably wishes he’d never gone, he scuttles toward the camera with a distorted rictus on his face, as if his life has moved past Tilt and tipped completely off a cliff. It’s a terrifying face Phoenix projects, especially considering what has just happened in the minutes preceding this shot.
Phoenix has so many emotions to get across to the audience through longtime Aster collaborator Pawel Pogorzelski’s lens – not one of them being peaceful or happy – and Aster makes sure to pack his frames with excruciating, agonizing tension. There are exactly zero moments when we can breathe easy, as there’s always something offsetting what should be right, but isn’t. When Beau’s hit by a car, he wakes up not in a hospital bed, but in a teenage girl’s room decorated with K-Pop posters and pictures of her friends. When Beau has a moment to sit and just be, we’re still suffering from the anxiety of the story unfolding before us or being in the same room as a dead body. Everything under Aster’s purview here is skewed; nothing is what it seems.
Clues and hints are dropped into some frames (take note of a certain picture Beau stares at in the fourth act) to perhaps tug us gently toward the direction of reality, but they’re undone immediately by the next shot or sequence. It’s not a case of Aster enjoying confusing us and yanking the ball away from us like Lucy van Pelt; Aster wants us to feel just as befuddled as Beau feels and shows he’s willing to use every tool at his disposal. Whether it’s the fever-dream moments of Beau’s perceptions of life around him, Bobby Krlic’s insistent score underpinnings, or Pogorzelski’s long and slow push-ins on Beau as he’s talking on the phone, Aster is in full command of his story and Beau’s odyssey.
Beau Is Afraid stands to be one of the most puzzled-over, beguiling, and entrancing films ever, its vignette-style storytelling keeping us in Beau’s waking nightmare as he fumbles through the simple task of trying to get home. Every bit of its lengthy runtime is instrumental to our experience – and Beau’s, for that matter – and eroding us until we can no longer discern fantasy from reality. Its darkly comic moments only underscore the extreme absurdity of Beau’s situation and enhance the danger of him slipping full-on into mental oblivion. Aster has created a sense-bending film that will leave you stunned like no other, battering the viewer with chaos and tumult until its final truth is unleashed. But what is that truth? Beau Is Afraid will, no doubt, stay in your consciousness until you think you’ve got it, and then it’ll rise up to batter your thoughts all over again.
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