A24 have done New York film-maker Ari Aster right. Even with the immeasurable cult following of his first two horror features Hereditary and Midsommar, his latest film Beau Is Afraid is an epic, haunting and truly demanding experience.
Originally titled Disappointment Blvd, it would appear everything has been flung against the wall here. It is the many different tableaux, with Joaquin Phoenix as the title character, that mean this film can be seen in many different ways. Freud meets Kafka, with a hefty dollop of Theatre Of Cruelty (amongst other movements, perhaps?
This is a tough review in many respects, as Beau… was such a mighty wallop on the head. Aster continues to wow with tight, impeccable direction, his Polish-Canadian cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski capturing vivid and luscious shots throughout, aside from dark and murky moments. The camera operator seems to do yoga in other scenes, things I’ve not really seen in cinema. All that was missing was a song and dance number.
The trailer above is much more positive in tone than the actual movie, one of the main reasons I avoid promotional material. Beau, as a character, faces trial by fire for the entirety of the film. What is reality and what is a dream is never fully revealed – a mean-spirited vibe is the throughline of the film, all aimed at poor Beau. To describe the abstract plot is another tricky feat, but suffice it to say it features parental approval, sexual regression, deeply rooted anxiety, physical injury and a total lack of control.
Fine acting from Phoenix, who does pathetic and lovable very skilfully, completes a hat-trick of unforgettable performances from each of Aster’s features, alongside previous roles from Toni Collette and Florence Pugh. Here, the familiar faces of Nathan Lane and Broadway diva Patti LuPone meld with bright young thing Armen Nahapetian – who had to declare on social media he was in fact real, and not CGI. His uncanny younger Beau, though, is one highlight among many.
Nods to other films, including Aster’s past two features, pop up in theme, setting and mood. One scene in an attic you simply will not be able to prepare for: I can imagine some people roaring with laughter, though I was more stunned into silence. The score, by Bobby Krlic aka The Haxan Cloak, is lovely and ambient, continuing the collaboration between him and Aster; not quite rivalling his staggering score for Midsommar, though it does work well for this next assault. A large chunk of the film features practical effects for a theatre company, off the grid in the woods. This bleeds into an elaborate illumination for Beau, as we see one poetical life lived out in theatre form, with paper, cardboard and masks all pleasingly executed.
If there is one grumble, it is the length, two minutes shy of three hours. Particular places drag a little, and we crave the next pasture for Beau to wallow in next. The end credits tease you with the possibility of a post-credits scene which doesn’t happen: we’re left there feeling numb and glum. Yet you will not forget Beau Is Afraid in a hurry.
Dir: Ari Aster (15, 178 mins)
Beau Is Afraid is out now on limited release
words JAMES ELLIS
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