Imagine this… Ari Aster, Joaquin Phoenix, and Freud walk into a bar and decide to make a film. And just for kicks, let’s imagine other substances besides alcohol would be involved, because who are we kidding? But even if we were to let our fancies go wild, chances are it wouldn’t come close to the grinning depravity of Beau Is Afraid.
If Midsommar was a Wizard of Oz for perverts, then Beau Is Afraid gives the degenerates their own Cinderella in its take on a harmless, unfairly persecuted protagonist.
Ari Aster's Revenge
We’ve come to expect no less from a director who has given us the singularly unsettling modern horror classics Hereditary and the aforementioned Midsommar, but Ari Aster has gone for the equally lauded and dreaded three-hour mark as he sends the hapless sad sack of the title on a modern odyssey where he has good reason to be fearful. Just why is Joaquin Phoenix’s sensitive, emotional, well-meaning guy being put through all this? Don’t try to answer that.
Chances are Aster will delight in various dissections and attempts at meanings to be found in the strangeness, much as Jordan Peele guided us through a bizarre, uniquely American comeuppance in Us without spoonfeeding all the messages behind its symbolism. Apparently, the rabbits represented the conflict between religion, magic, and science? Deep.
But there’s a lot less clout behind Ari Aster’s disjointed view of the world, mainly because the punchline becomes more and more apparent: as a literal son of privilege, Beau isn’t supposed to be there today. Or ever. The world of the film was already weird enough before Beau decided to embark on a dangerous journey back home for his mother’s funeral; he resides in a crappy, dangerous apartment in a city which resembles the cartoonishly violent image of Chicago (the city I call home FYI) and a world on the verge of tipping into an all-out Mad Max-style dystopia.
Get ready, because the stage is set for Beau to live out every white man’s fear of the world. He’s deeply paranoid and on meds, the police are ready to shoot him on a whim, an armed and very traumatized veteran pursues him, the poor outside are constantly ready to spring at the slightest sign of weakness, and even the old reliable standby of the suburbs barely offer a respite for well-off whites looking to flee the horrific culture of the cities where there’s practically open warfare on the streets in broad daylight. At least not when pill-popping suburban teens start getting resentful.
Bedlam Bedtime Story
Aster includes enough of his trademark dark humor, with signage, verbal asides, and news reports about a naked murderer the media dubs the Birthday Boy Stab Man to avoid accusations of fascism, but who’s to blame is where things really go off the rails. A tale so obviously Freudian would only set its sights on one person, and Aster’s disjointed, uneven narrative tries to give Beau’s mother Mona some depth in flashbacks when she’s played by Zoe Lister-Jones. She gives a spectacular read, but it’s when she’s giving her young son his lifelong psychosis is where she really makes the most of her monster.
Framed in darkness and moody red lighting, her version of a bedtime story is a tale of how Beau’s Christlike father perishes so his son can come into existence. In the most literal sense, during sex, the night Beau was conceived, which was also the exact moment his father died. Once we catch up to Mona in the present, all bets are off. As a beautiful young single mother in opulent surroundings, there could be a certain amount of sympathy, but once she’s a bitter, aged CEO, even the presence of the legendary Patti LuPone can’t make her recognizably human. The big reveal of their devastating meeting won’t be spoiled here, as you’d have to see to believe it, and even then you might not.
The closest thing Beau Is Afraid has to a safe harbor is off the grid entirely, where a group of theatrical players create a story that is no less magical for its artificiality, and becomes a short film in itself as a male fantasy of happiness in a life lived on the land, then loss, persecution, and ultimately reconciliation. There’s even glimmers of connection with a pregnant woman clad in green and armed with arrows and compassion as a kind of amalgamation of Robin Hood and Marian.
It can’t last in a film like this, which sees life as an endless nightmare for its scion of wealth and privilege. It must diminish its protagonist and distort the world in order to move the narrative forward, and all the ambition and sheer creativity isn’t enough to compensate for this core hollowness. If you don’t share an identity with Phoenix or Aster, chances are you’ll be too exhausted to care once Beau must face a white man’s ultimate fear – cancellation. Everyone is all in, and the scope of their talent is enough to make some moments enjoyable, but many of us have better things to worry about.
Rating: 3/10 SPECS
Beau Is Afraid plays in theaters April 21.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.
She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.