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Beau is Afraid (Film Review)

3 min read

How does one follow up two of the greatest horror films of the 21st century? It is a question not many of us can apply to ourselves, but after Hereditary and Midsommar, has to face this conundrum. Indeed, perhaps the answer was only obvious to him: largely move away from the horror genre, and instead deliver an epic, anxiety-ridden, tragicomic odyssey that draws on his own life and familial relationships and flits both gracefully and clumsily between reality and dreams. The -led is that odyssey, a bright, amusing, blundering third Aster film that is big, brutal, and undeniably bold – and yet for all its bombast, Beau Is Afraid is most notably unfocussed.

The opening to Beau Is Afraid is terrific. Phoenix as the titular Beau walks home to his dingy apartment on a dangerous and equally dingy street. Extended tracking shots establish a world that feels both startingly real and feverishly fake, a smorgasbord of melodramatic, intensely stereotypical extras. How much of this is in Beau's mind, and how much of it is real? The anxiety deepens upon Beau's arrival home, with Aster exquisitely balancing sarcastic, absurdist humour with evocative depictions of one man's struggles with his own mental health.

Upon learning of his mother's possible death, Beau begins his trek across America to see her, in whatever state she may be in. He meets supporting characters – 's Roger is a comedic standout – and confronts his darkest demons and memories, signalling intense issues with his mother and childhood abuse. Beau is kind and mild-mannered, and you truly care for him as he hits moments of elation amidst facing his deepest fears. Beau Is Afraid is never not feverish in its energy, but the quieter moments also still largely work.

Beau Is Afraid

The issues of Beau Is Afraid stem from Aster's scattergun, messy approach to the story. The 179-minute runtime is keenly felt and unnecessary: as entertaining as Beau's stay with Roger and Grace () is, it could easily be cut from the film and no great loss would be felt. Aster navigates these intense psychological themes very impressively at times – the highlight is a divine, 12-minute animation sequence by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña midway through the film – but is also guilty of portraying them in a heavy-handed way. Subtlety is given little value compared to bludgeoning obviousness. Ultimately, Beau Is Afraid becomes bloated under the weight of its own ambitions, most notably in its woefully elongated, on the nose finale.

Despite these issues, Beau Is Afraid remains remarkable in its boldness and vivacity. Aster again collaborates with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and composer Bobby Krlic to brilliant effect; Pogorzelski shoots with a visual flair and constant unease via inventive camera movements and dolly shots, whilst Krlic, just like in Midsommar, gives us a remarkable original score of evocative beauty and terrifying distortion. These elements, along with wonderful production design by Fiona Crombie and location work by Adrian Knight, combine to create the lonely, paranoid world of Beau.

So much happens in Beau Is Afraid that it can be daunting, but it is never confusing. Aster successfully sketches a character that feels real and tangible, despite his absurd surroundings, whilst some of the most striking sequences in Beau Is Afraid come, unsurprisingly, in its infrequent horror sequences. These terrific moments are ultimately stifled by Aster's disorganisation; he flits from the sublime to the downright stupid so often in Beau Is Afraid that it becomes impossible to guess whether each subsequent beat or moment will be a success or a disaster. Such anxiety, unease and incoherence becomes applicable to both Beau and the audience.

Beau Is Afraid releases on 19th May in UK cinemas.