APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEAU IS AFRAID (2023)

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Beau Is Afraid is available for VOD purchase.

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Patti LuPone, Armen Nahapetian, , Nathan Lane

PLOT: Anxiety-ridden Beau is scheduled to take a trip to see his domineering mother, but it becomes a nightmare as the universe conspires against his success.

Still from Beau Is Afraid (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Ari Aster takes a break from elevated horror to film three hours of gonzo black comedy that captures what I imagine hour 36 of a nonstop meth binge must feel like: a tsunami of paranoia, hallucination, and self-loathing that seems like it will never end. It’s an experiment in excess that few directors ever get the chance to indulge in—a gamble that could make or break a career, or be forgotten and seen as an outlier oddity in an auteur’s oeuvre years down the road. Whatever it is, assisted by an (as always) all-in Joaquin Phoenix, Aster seizes the opportunity to present the type of big budget freakoutshow we’re unlikely to see again for a long time. It’s a weird movie happening; see it now, so years down the line you can brag to the next generation of weirdo cinephiles that you caught Beau on the big screen.

COMMENTS: I don’t think the new pills Beau’s therapist prescribes him at the beginning of the film are working. They may even be making things worse. Not only does the fact that they must be taken with water raise problems (and plot points) for a patient with an obsessive anxiety disorder who lives in a tenement with iffy plumbing, but we don’t really know much about how Beau sees the world before the medication switch. Afterwards, the city Beau sees around him looks something like Taxi Driver a few weeks before everyone flees town and officially signs up with a Road Warrior gang. The street on which he lives throngs with homeless ruffians, including a head-to-toe tatted thug who particularly has it out for Beau. The urban terrors are so hyperbolic that we can’t for a second buy that Beau exists in our world (little nuggets like a soldier who died in a non-existent campaign in Caracas suggest an alternate reality). By the time Beau discovers a bum clinging to his bathroom ceiling, we realize that we’re trapped far, far inside his paranoid mind, and the omnipresent threats we see through his eyes aren’t all there.

Like a symphony (maybe Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety”), Beau Is Afraid is structured in four movements (with interstitial interludes flashing back to Beau’s boyhood). Between the beginning of his journey and his return to his childhood home, Beau makes two major stops along the way: first, at the home of a kindly couple played by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane, then with a community of theatrical vagabonds who dub themselves the “Orphans of the Forest.” The film’s opening has an After Hours vibe, as an unbelievable run of bad luck—a stolen key, an apartment lockout, a naked stabber—conspires to keep Beau from setting out on his dreaded reunion with his mother. The last event in this nightmare string of coincidences thrusts Beau into the second act convalescing in the care of Ryan and Lane, alongside their vindictive teenage daughter and the insane war veteran who lives in a trailer on their property. This stretch operates as a parody of the nuclear family: middle-aged Beau is unofficially adopted into what appears, on the surface, to be a loving household, but which holds a subtler variety of suburban horrors than the urban hellscape he left behind. The third movement is a fantasia providing the slightest breather from all the psychological carnage. Here, Aster cranks up the surrealism as Beau finds himself absorbed into the Orphans of the Forest’s Méliès-like performance, imagining himself as the protagonist in the troupe’s stop-motion/cut-out animated fable about a man searching for his lost family. (The Wolf House‘s and supply the animation, so the aesthetic is top-shelf). Thanks to the abundant eye-candy, relatively sedate pace, and atypical poetic grace, this section is a favorite, serving as a respite before Aster turns the crank on his angst-generator for a finale where Beau confronts the legacy of his past (and Aster again proves himself a master of the awkward sex scene). I spoil exceedingly little in saying that the film’s resolution is not entirely happy.

Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019) were monuments in the recent A24-led art-horror renaissance. Both flirted with genre-defying weirdness, hinting that Aster might have a truly weird movie in him somewhere in the future. Beau proves those suspicions well-founded; here, Aster lets the most demented of his muses run wild. The results are crazed, extreme. That’s not to say that A24’s confidence in the project and its director is justified from a commercial, or even a strictly artistic, standpoint. It’s fair to argue that Aster, who had been insistent about pushing the length of his films with the unnecessary Midsommar director’s cut, is given too long a leash here. Three hours is too long to consistently sustain this intensity. As good as Phoenix is, Beau (both character and movie) is one note: after a while, staring into his perpetually horrified eyes and listening to his pathetic stammers and screams becomes a chore. The script’s unremitting meanness to our lovable-but-aggravating loser doesn’t help; every minor kindness shown Beau is just as quickly snatched away. Nor does the movie quite stick the landing; because there is no honest possibility of growth or redemption for a character as damaged as Beau, there is no point at which the film can reasonably end. Eventually, the director must simply throw up his hands and admit he can’t think of any further tricks with which to torment his creation. That said, it’s perhaps fitting that a movie so excessive in style, tone and content is excessive in runtime as well.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Aster’s most audacious and deranged movie yet — a movie so weird it makes Midsommar and Hereditary seem like conventional horror flicks… a gonzo odyssey for our times, a rejection of mediocre cinema, and a paean for all the perverted weirdos out there. This one’s for you, sickos.”–Hoai Tran-Bui, Inverse (contemporaneous)

5 thoughts on “APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEAU IS AFRAID (2023)”

  1. Having gone on such a binge some years back, I’m interested to see if the parallel holds. (Mind you, I was lacking in the peripherals Beau endured.)

  2. Here’s a good article synthesizing detractors’ complaints about Beau, which mainly revolve around his character being severely underdeveloped:

    https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-current-debate-beau-is-afraid-but-is-that-all-there-is-to-him

    Ultimately, they still conclude it’s a unique and special movie that’s worth seeing. I agree with this take overall. It’s flawed and not quite a masterpiece, but within the weird genre it’s close to a “must see” experience.

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