‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ is generally a question meant to allay fears and anxieties, to force someone (or oneself) to logically consider the unlikeliness of true calamity. In Ari Aster’s epic and ridiculous black comedy Beau is Afraid, though, it’s a question asked more as a threat, with the eponymous Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) bludgeoned with worst-case-scenario after worst-case-scenario until you think his world might just collapse in on itself. It’s a skin-crawlingly potent premise, but one that is eventually lost behind the many self-indulgent layers of meta-ness and nightmarish conspiracy that Aster crams into a three-hour runtime that, for good and bad, feels more like three whole days.
To try and satisfactorily break down the plot here would be a fool’s errand, with much of the manic story playing out in a series of bizarre dream-logic vignettes, but the thrust of it is that Beau, a mild-mannered and incredibly anxious man, is trying to get from his apartment to his overbearing mother’s house and has just about the worst luck in history. We start in Beau’s home in a crime-ridden corner of the city, Aster using the chaotic setting to very effectively externalise what it feels like to live with an anxiety disorder.
Every person in the street and in his building is a psychopath who has it out for him, while constant noise pours into his apartment. It’s abrasive and upsetting, firing us into Beau’s headspace in a way that feels both natural and disorienting, helped by Aster’s now-trademark stylistic techniques, all carefully-orchestrated chaos and strange, robotic camera movements. It’s in these earlier moments that Beau is Afraid feels most like an *Ari Aster* movie as we’ve come to expect following Hereditary and Midsommar and while his later moves into new territory are often fascinating, the rest of the film is never as effective as it is when Aster seems to be on more familiar ground.
As Beau is Afraid hurtles along on its surreal and grotesque journey, it becomes hard to pin a genre on it (it’s certainly not the kind of horror film that made Aster’s name), but if you’ve seen any of Charlie Kaufman’s three directorial efforts, you’ll certainly feel their influence here. What are purely Aster’s, though, are the neuroses that fuel every second of this thing; from religious uncertainty to mummy issues to overwhelming anxiety to a fearful fixation on his own cock and balls, you’ll know Aster’s mind all too well by the time the credits roll.
For a while, this self-indulgence is compelling, brought to life with a fantastically grandiose flair (Beau is Afraid is the most expensive movie A24 have ever made, and every dollar is visible on screen) and a series of strange and powerful performances. Phoenix is hardly doing his best work here, but he’s still on a tear as Beau, while Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti LuPone are effectively chilling playing Beau’s nightmarish mother Mona at various stages of her life. Pick of the litter is without a doubt Nathan Lane, playing a surgeon called Roger who forcibly adopts Beau after running him over in a truck (long story) and delivers every line with such a hilarious relish that he single-handedly elevates the middle act.
Pound for pound, Beau is Afraid is Aster’s funniest film, getting big laughs from both his cast and from the way he deals with his reputation preceding him – there’s a marvellous visual gag of a headless corpse getting an open-casket funeral. These laughs, along with most of the other good stuff, dry up a lot in the finale, though, which is where everything starts crumbling. Aster has already asked a lot of his audience at this point (a colossally long interlude where Beau imagines himself as the protagonist of a play he’s watching in the woods might be a lot of people’s breaking point), but this climax is a real *test*. This is, from the off, certainly not a film to be taken literally, but there’s such a complete removal from reality by the time we get to the end that it’s hard not to tune out as Beau’s final fate reveals itself.
After pretty much defining the blanket phrase ‘A24 Horror’, Aster was due a big swing like this, and I’m overall very glad that he was allowed to take it – we need these sort of bold auteur works to sneak themselves into the semi-mainstream now more than ever. Beau is Afraid asks of its audience, fundamentally, endurance as we watch the recesses of Aster’s mind crawl all over the screen for three hours, an endurance rewarded with intermittent brilliance, alienating oversharing, and a repeated image of Joaquin Phoenix wearing a pair of giant prosthetic bollocks. Give it a go – what’s the worst that could happen?