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Beau is Afraid – Film Review

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beau is afraid film review
Beau is Afraid – Film Review

My friend group hasn’t forgiven me for recommending Uncut Gems to them. The 2020 movie starring Adam Sandler is like a perpetual anxiety attack and I love it with every cell of my body. It feels like it’s constantly teetering on a cliff. But it’s for the same reasons that my friends hated it, and now look at me warily whenever I recommend something. I’m never getting that trust back. Damn you Sandler. 

Thanks to Beau is Afraid, I now know how they feel. The third writer/directorial outing for Ari Aster, following Hereditary and Midsommer, is my most anticipated movie of the year. Those two movies are some of my favourite horror movies of all time. Beau is Afraid feels like a personal recommendation from Ari Aster, and I deeply wanted to love it. I’d heard that it was marmite, that it was – again – a perpetual anxiety attack, but that only sent my expectations sky-rocketing. Ari Aster’s Uncut Gems? Oh yes.

Where on Earth to start with Beau is Afraid? It’s so kaleidoscopic (and frigging long) that you could describe it many ways, and be completely correct. It is an Odyssian journey for the extremely anxious. A nightmarish series of skits. Whatever it is, it centres on the introverted Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), who’s due to visit his mother, which means leaving his apartment – not insignificant, since there are prowling ne’er-do-wells outside – and getting a flight. But he has belief in himself. He’s packed, and he’s ready to go. 

Through some admittedly hilarious pratfalls, which make up the tightest and most believable section of the movie, Beau’s locked out of his apartment looking in, watching as those ne’er-do-wells ransack his stuff, wipe crap on the walls and – hilariously – do his washing up. He doesn’t have tickets, bags, keys or clothes. There’s no way he can make it to see his Mum. The trip is off. He calls his Mum, and the subtext is that she’s at best disappointed in him, at worst pissed. 

But then she dies in a tragic chandelier accident. Now Beau has to make the journey, but for altogether different reasons. Meanwhile, the universe conspires to stop him getting there. Thus the Odyssey: this is the myth with its hero replaced with a blubbering piece of meat, and the cyclops and other obstacles are replaced by fate, whimsy, bad luck and – debatably – the side effects of Beau’s drugs. 

From here, Beau is Afraid lurches from outright comedy into something like his traditional horror. Because it feels like Ari Aster is probing for modern anxieties, to expose Beau to them, and see if we squirm along with him. Constantly, there’s the fear of being accused of something that you haven’t done. Even when Beau does nothing, the characters react as if he’s done something, and it’s a horrible itchy feeling that we haven’t felt before. But there’s so many others, as if Aster is trying to snuffle around for new ways to make us uncomfortable: the shame of thinking we’re the main characters in a story when we’re not; the belief that we are who we are because of our parents, only for them to reject us; trying not to impose on strangers, but those strangers feel imposed on anyway. It’s all knotty, Freudian stuff. Beau bounces from encounter to encounter, from a helpful couple who accidentally run him over to a commune who dabble in performance art, all the way to a judgment from a fishing boat. 

Even people who love the movie would probably admit that it is indulgent and overly long at just over three hours. If you are tuned into its wavelength, it will feel like ebbs and flows. But if you’re like us and, for whatever reason, you don’t plug into what it is trying to do, then it will feel much longer. 

I can’t really explain why Beau is Afraid didn’t work for me, any more than I could explain why I don’t like the taste of peas. But let’s try anyway. It feels like it’s set up to generate visceral reactions, from laughter to disgust and extreme anxiety. But the laughter was far too sporadic: there are some brilliant sight gags, and a couple of situations – the apartment and the helpful couple – had us howling. But for too long, it felt languid and deliberately trying to coax a reaction out of us. It felt more like Southland Tales than Eraserhead, as I could sense the director trying to be outrageous, rather than it coming naturally. It was more performance art than anxiety attack, as I felt with Uncut Gems.

The anxiety was very definitely there, but it was tiring. These tense moments were constantly being fired at poor Beau, and he barely had a chance to get a word in edgeways, or to find some kind of redemption. It’s a queue of unhinged individuals taking things from him, beating him up, and being witheringly cruel. It was exhausting. For three hours, it was like watching a torture scene, and I most definitely mean that negatively. 

By the end, I was battered and bruised, feeling around for a message within the chaos. Beau is Afraid definitely wanted me to think about a kind of perverted nature-nurture, as Beau deals with a dysfunctional mother while simultaneously failing to break the cycle of dysfunction himself. But mostly it’s an avalanche of ideas, without enough to hold onto. Perhaps we missed some strong dramaturgical threads, but it felt more like a long joke, a test of some boundaries, than it was a coherent movie. 

It’s a movie that I’ll probably stew on for a few more days, and there’s no doubt it will stick, limpet-like to me. It might even grow there. But my initial reaction to Beau is Afraid is that it’s uncomfortable to watch, not because it’s getting me to see the world in new ways, but because it tests my patience on the way to being far too long. 

But for all that, we suspect that there will be people who react positively to it, just as we came out in hives. It’s one that we won’t be recommending to our friends, then, but it’s one that the more curiously minded might (emphasis on might) find something to laugh at.

SUMMARY

Pros:
  • A kafkaesque nightmare
  • Everyone is giving their all
  • Moments coalesce to be hilarious
Cons:
  • But too much misses and falls flat
  • Languorous runtime
  • So much chaos, very little of worth
Info:
  • Purchased by TXH
  • Running time and release date - 2hr 59mins | 2023
  • To rent/buy - £3.49 / £11.99 SD, £4.49 / £13.99 HD, £7.99 / £17.99 HD
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<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>A kafkaesque nightmare</li> <li>Everyone is giving their all</li> <li>Moments coalesce to be hilarious</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>But too much misses and falls flat</li> <li>Languorous runtime</li> <li>So much chaos, very little of worth</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Purchased by TXH</li> <li>Running time and release date - 2hr 59mins | 2023 <li>To rent/buy - £3.49 / £11.99 SD, £4.49 / £13.99 HD, £7.99 / £17.99 HD</li> </ul>Beau is Afraid - Film Review
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