by Philip Price
Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone & Amy Ryan
Runtime: 2 hours & 59 minutes
I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. I can appreciate it, but beyond technique, the emotional intent doesn’t transcend the surrealism prohibiting what transpires or at least the many interpretations of what is happening to land in a way that is meaningful and instead, it mostly feels subversive for the sake of being weird.
Director Ari Aster's odyssey that is “Beau is Afraid” walks a fine line for the entirety of its three-hour runtime between nightmare scenarios from the perspective of Joaquin Phoenix’s titular character and the comical follies of everyday life … even when dealing with the most serious of serious subjects.
Presented through the lens of Beau, everything we see is as it is because of the nature of the character’s anxieties and sometimes that might make situations darkly comic – putting together a puzzle with a married couple that makes up a picture of their dead son to the tune of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles”, for example – or downright disturbing (unexplained notes being slid under your door in your shitty apartment building blaming you for loud music that you aren’t playing, anyone?), but nothing about Beau’s life is relieving and that is the burden Aster asks of his audience: to make this a shared experience rather than a spectator sport. What I took away from shouldering part of the weight of Beau’s psychosis, of which I anticipate everyone will have their own, was this line of thought about everything one goes through and puts themselves through in order to please certain people in their life only for those people to not recognize said struggles or appreciate any of the effort, but only still criticize things and/or people for not living up to their expectations. Coming to terms with certain anxieties and truths about one’s own self is a win for the film, no doubt, as going to the movies is cheaper than therapy, but with the broad spectrum of episodes “Beau is Afraid” imagines Aster seems just as interested in what his audience takes from his film as he is in what his film takes from its audience.
Is it a bold cinematic experiment? Yeah. A provocative gamble? Undoubtedly. And yet, this is a film so caught up in its own need to validate and crystallize these small moments and specific feelings that more than any one theme, issue, or even character anchoring the story and further, the emotional consequence of the film, “Beau is Afraid” instead makes the audience question the very nature of this kind of storytelling. Halfway through the journey, it began to feel like a trek and the mind began to wander, wondering what it was about certain art forms that made individuals feel the need to express and/or get things off their chest via silly movies that sometimes take themselves seriously. I certainly found myself sympathizing with Phoenix’s character and the suffering he was experiencing, but the fact the film at once led me down a thought path that asked what Aster hoped to accomplish with this as well as consider how much of it was done in vain made the whole of the experience more exasperating than enlightening.
As acknowledged, the techniques, production design, shot design, soundtrack selections, and many of the performances littered throughout naturally assist in making Aster’s brand of paranoia a little more digestible yet not even the highs can compensate for this type of excessive self-reflection. It’s funny because one of the biggest tricks in Aster’s directing bag that signals you’re watching an Aster film is staging the same shot at what are very obviously two different points in time so as to allow him to make a jump cut and simultaneously signal both the passage of time and the lack of progress. It’s funny because with such a cut, if one blinks at the exact right moment it can feel like hours have passed in an instant and while I may have hoped for as much in the midst of watching “Beau is Afraid” I would have much-preferred progress regarding shaping what still feels self-indulgent into something more meaningful and insightful than this purports to be. I mean, how many times can we sever a head to symbolize the need to break the chains that have always been present? If we’re going to get weird, let’s get deep, amirite?
Parker Posey is a real one though. For real.
“Beau is Afraid” is in select theaters.