In times like this, I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s thoughts on David Cronenberg’s 1991 film Naked Lunch: “I admire what he did, and I hate it.”
Beau is Afraid delves so deeply and artistically into one man’s psyche that you can’t help but admire some of the filmmaking going on. It’s also incredibly funny at times, but one of my issues with the film is that most of its humor is produced by scenes of shocking depravity, or moments so random that all you can do is chuckle, befuddled and bemused. This would be fine if it weren’t also trying to dig at some very important themes. Because of director Ari Aster’s commitment to being as audacious as possible, these deeper themes surface only occasionally, buried by scene after scene of endless noise. The noise I’m referring to isn’t always just loudness. It has to do with the film’s lack of emotional stakes, a void Aster fills with meaningless random events.
Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled middle-aged man who lives in what seems to be the worst possible part of any major metropolitan area. His apartment is barely functional at all, violent junkies lurk around every street corner, and there’s even a brown recluse spider haunting the building. When Beau takes pills which he’s been sternly warned not to take dry, the clerk at the nearby convenience store calls the police because he’s a penny short on a bottle of water.
Obviously, Beau is an unlucky fellow living in a nightmare world. When he learns that his emotionally abusive mother has died, the news leads him down a somehow even more bizarre path where very few treat him with genuine kindness. Even when he finds himself in the care of a seemingly benevolent (if a little misguided) couple played by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane, their charity turns to chicanery at the drop of a hat.
That Ryan/Lane section is where the film started to lose me. In the first act in and around Beau’s apartment, the wild antics can be quite endearing, the comedy itself an introduction to the film’s big swings. However, I was hoping that we would eventually get some clarity as to what world we were in. Because we’re always so tightly focused on Beau, and not so much on the stakes of the broader world around him, I could never get a feel for how much of what we were seeing was in Beau’s head and how much was implicitly real. I think knowing the difference would have gone a long way towards knowing what it was Aster wanted me to take away from this experience. The idyllic suburban setting of the Ryan/Lane act gives no answers because its inhabitants are just as odd as the city dwellers. Call me old-fashioned, but some ground rules would be nice.
Then comes the utterly unhinged third act, which ironically includes the film’s most sanguine sequence, an animated tapestry of a fantasy in Beau’s mind. Kudos to Jorge Canada Escorihuela, Joaquín Cociña, and Cristóbal León for animating such a beautiful little fable in the midst of all this chaos. I wish the film would have ended right after this section. Although it would still have been uneven and left some plot points up in the air, it would have given Beau some much-deserved closure and a route to inner peace. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a film which does nothing but figuratively kick its main character in the groin for its entire runtime, and that’s exactly what Beau is Afraid does, apart from this one shining, soothing moment. But of course, the soothing stops there because Aster must keep scratching his cruelty itch for another half-hour or so. Also, my heart goes out to the legend Parker Posey for playing the most brutally thankless role in this or any film.
To be fair, Aster is a filmmaker whose work I’ve admired for quite some time. I’m sure I will continue to admire many of his future works long after Beau has left theaters. His previous film, Midsommar, is a masterpiece in my opinion, and I was excited for him to return to his button-pushing roots with this film. One of his early short films, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, deals with a comedically crazy family unit in a similar way to Beau. Don’t worry — if you know the insane twist of that short film, I haven’t spoiled anything about Beau. The two films are just quite comparable in tone and thematic material. Maybe this should have been a short, too. At the very least, it should have been shorter than three hours. | George Napper