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Film Review: “Beau Is Afraid” But Not Quite Compelling Enough

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 20th, 2023

Film poster: “Beau Is Afraid”

Beau Is Afraid (Ari Aster, 2023) 2 out of 4 stars.

Though the presence of an oversized talking penis might lead one to label Beau Is Afraid an entirely masturbatory exercise, there is more to director Ari Aster’s third feature than just that. How much more lies no doubt in the eye of the cinematic beholder, but let there be zero confusion about one thing: a lot of considerable craft and talent are here on display. Unfortunately, that strength is also a weakness, for the many disparate parts, as individually engaging though some may be, never quite coalesce into anything other than a tired meditation on neuroses and guilt. It’s depressing, at the end, to realize how much ado has been made about so little new.

In his brief career, Aster has embraced purposeful excess, plunging us first into the supernatural fever dream of Hereditary and then the folk horror of Midsommar. And though I far preferred the latter to the former (despite its liberal cribbing from films like The Wicker Man), both featured meticulous production design and stellar performances. The same holds true here, with Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) giving it his all in a raw turn as protagonist Beau, a fortysomething loner with a deeply fraught, and co-dependent, relationship with his mother, played at different ages by the equally strong Patti Lupone (Netflix’s Hollywood series) and Zoe Lister-Jones (How It Ends). The phrase “tour de force” does not begin to describe Phoenix’s towering turn.

l-r: Armen Nahapetian and Zoe Lister-Jones in BEAU IS AFRAID ©A24

The movie follows (in a circuitous, surreal fashion), the journey of our hero as he tries to make it home to see his mother after a seven-month absence. We slide in and out of flashbacks (with Armen Nahapetian as the teen Beau), though many of them feel as hallucinatory as the present, the line between reality, nightmare, past and present blended beyond recognition. Divided into a series of distinct sequences, this lengthy (at three hours) exploration of filial duty and rejection feels like multiple stories wrapped in a single package, each one tackling the same topic from a different angle. Some sections prove compelling—my favorite among them an extended fable in which a version of Beau seeks out a lost trio of sons—while others less so. Mixed bag thought it may be, Aster nevertheless almost makes the totality work. Almost, but not quite.

The problem lies in the fact that, by the conclusion, the central premise that emerges is so stale as to undo any goodwill that Aster’s undeniable skill with mise-en-scène has engendered. Mothers can be demanding (so can fathers, for that matter) and their crushing love can certainly cause lifelong damage. But do we need yet another treatment like this that borders on misogyny and traffics in the worst kind of one-note stereotypes? If Aster has a larger point beyond rehashing the sins of parenthood, they are lost in the perverse mayhem of the umbrella structure. Nevertheless, it’s hard to condemn the entire exercise, given how much fun certain slices of it deliver. There’s nothing to fear in Beau Is Afraid beyond tedium. Nothing a ruthless edit couldn’t help fix.

l-r: Joaquin Phoenix in BEAU IS AFRAID ©A24

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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