Nihilism has a new spokesman in Ari Aster. The writer/director who brought us HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR has now unveiled a piece of what feels like his soul in the bizarre, mind-numbing, and relentlessly unpredictable BEAU IS AFRAID. Aster’s work has fed into what has become known as “elevated horror,” while BEAU may not seem like a horror film on the surface, its combination of dark humor and horrific circumstances ties it neatly to the genre.
The film is challenging to discuss and even more difficult to define without giving too much away. And yet, what, exactly, is there to give away? This three-hour-long parable is very specifically composed, wasting not a moment of its valuable runtime. For the right viewer, this film will spark a connection. For most viewers, it’s destined to spark outrage. The frustratingly undefined story and atypical narrative format are certain to alienate and enrage, yet it’s all for a purpose. As with HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR, Aster isn’t spoon-feeding anyone answers. It’s truly up to the viewer to put the pieces of his bizarre puzzles together. The difference in BEAU is that the elements of the lead character’s unreliability as a narrator and fantastical projections can and will leave audiences confounded. Aster isn’t asking audiences to be patient and observant; he’s forcing them to.
Joaquin Phoenix, as Beau Wasserman, is as engaging as ever. The role is particularly interesting because the film is less about him and more about what’s happening to him. The odd circumstances he finds himself in seem also to be happening to the audience, who is just as bewildered and put off as he is. Perhaps even more striking a performance than Phoenix’s, the film is a beautiful showcase of Broadway legend Patti LuPone. Lauded as a bold and unapologetic presence on the stage and in real life, here, as Mona Wasserman (Beau’s mother), she is afforded the opportunity to deliver a performance as commanding and undeniably powerful as any one of her iconic Broadway numbers. She is a force to be reckoned with, and it’s wonderful to see her talent utilized so successfully. The rest of the cast is an ensemble of players who, frankly, may be better suited as surprises, and so I shall not mention them by name. However, know that they each give very intentional, tuned-in, and unexpected performances.
Watching any one of Aster’s films (and his short films, which are absolutely worth watching and all easily available) is a commitment. A surrender. A journey. It’s exhausting. HE is exhausting. And yet, he has found his niche audience: we who relate to the human experience and all its flaws through a horrific lens. If HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR were warm-ups, BEAU IS AFRAID is his nightmarish, guilt-ridden, Lynchian opus.
French auteur Gaspar Noé has said time and time again he’s not asking audiences to like his films. In fact, in some cases, he doesn’t want you to. He views his art as an experience before being entertainment. I advise audiences to approach BEAU IS AFRAID under the same motto. If you’re unsure if you’ll like the movie, chances are, you won’t. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experience it.
BEAU IS AFRAID is now showing in theaters.