Beau is Afraid arrives in cinemas on May 19th.
Beau is Afraid opens with the birth of its titular character. Opening a film this way isn’t uncommon; we’ve seen birthing scenes before – it signals the beginning of a character’s journey and the start of our journey into their world. With any other director, we would likely focus on the immediate bond between mother and child. Or the sweet moments of the child’s first breaths. But in Beau is Afraid, we are treated to a violent, horrifying depiction of childbirth as we witness the event through the babe’s eyes. Infinite darkness is suddenly and viscerally ruptured whilst the sounds of what can only be described as the known universe are heard as the babe enters the petrifying world outside the womb. But this torment is only the beginning, and it pretty much sets the tone for the rest of Beau is Afraid.
Ari Aster’s decade-long passion project sees Joaquin Phoenix’s simple man-child Beau Wasserman hesitantly preparing to visit his wealthy CEO mother, Mona. From his therapy sessions, we quickly understand everything we need to know about Beau – he’s maddeningly indecisive, anxious and suffocated by an existential hypochondria. This is the closest we’ll ever get to Phoenix playing a part in an out-and-out comedy, as despite Beau being a one-note character (intentionally so, I might add), the world built around him is remarkably complicated. Unsurprisingly, Aster and Phoenix make a solid team, as both love digging into the psychologically murky mud of strange, off-kilter individuals.
While Aster’s flair for the freaky and penchant for the creepy is built into the very fabric of Beau, he’s turned the dark comedy up. There’s gleefully twisted humour here that relies on us perversely enjoying the suffering of Beau. It feels like Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave matched with a side dish of acid and a nice pint of absinthe to wash it down. Some people aren’t going to find this film funny at all, and that’s because Aster has such a specific comedic sensibility that some will find the dark and horrible jokes – well, dark and horrible.
However, Aster will have you in stitches if you were raised on a diet of Tim & Eric, Salad Fingers and Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. There’s an entire fifteen-minute section where it feels like the film has finally taken off, leaving any sense of reality behind, rocketing you into confusion and disbelief – Where are we? What is this? – only Aster could pull the rug out, sending you crashing back down before telling you, “None of that mattered. Move on!” In a way, Beau is Afraid plays like a three-hour prank, and I kind of love that.
Initially, the $35 million budget seemed a little too lofty to believe – but it’s clear where the money went as cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, production designer Fiona Crombie and supervising art director David Gaucher work hand-in-hand to create a world that feels intensely artificial and yet uncomfortably real. We drift through locations that feel like classic Hollywood sets. Some sets feel like if you were to lean on a building, it might turn flat and suddenly collapse, while others feel like Beau has fallen through a doorway into an infinite void of watery darkness.
There is no telling where we will end up next, which hammers home just how wild this misadventure comedy is – it feels like an ever-expanding library of influences from adventure movies of the 1990s like Romancing the Stone to psychological thrillers of the 1960s like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? There is so much cinematically thrown at you that your head feels like it could explode before the second hour has even finished. Beau is Afraid is undoubtedly one of the wildest movies of the 21st century, and it has to be seen and experienced to be believed.
Beau is Afraid feels so dangerously original that it’s incredible Ari Aster ever convinced A24 to give him carte blanche and a fat $35 million cheque to make it! It’s a darkly comic labyrinthian nightmare that feels both epic and claustrophobically intimate, punctuated by an actor going for broke as an agitated-yet-endearing man-child. One thing is for sure; you won’t see anything else like it this year.
THE BLAZING WORLD
Beau Is Afraid | United States | 2hr 59min | 2023
Beau is Afraid feels so dangerously original that it’s incredible Ari Aster ever convinced A24 to give him carte blanche and a fat $35 million cheque to make it!