Written and directed by Ari Aster
In Hereditary, Ari Aster’s 2018 horror-struck treatise on grief, Toni Collette’s character Annie delivers an eulogy for her dead mother. We sense her obvious sadness over the loss of a parent, a mother, but there’s a hesitation in her words, betraying an inner conflict. Beau Is Afraid feels like someone asked Aster to expand on those conflicting feelings, and to watch the result is like being trapped in the ensuing explanation, suddenly held captive by a pained but messy tirade that unleashes the frustration, guilt, and despair that have been building all this time.
With its 3-hour runtime, Aster takes a nosedive into the neuroses of a man estranged from a very demanding and exerting mother as he travels back home for her funeral. The journey is a delirious, funny, and disturbing mind bender that defies easy categorization. It seems like Aster thinks that once you run out of tears to cry over your trauma, all you can do is laugh, because absurdity is the coping mechanism of choice for Beau Is Afraid.
In line with the difficult task of unpacking decades of complicated emotions, the journey’s also overly winding, disjointed, and self-indulgent. At times you feel like you’re just lending an ear to someone in pain while secretly wishing you could shimmy away.
It is evocative, however: there are urban hellscapes to experience, suburban creeps to run afoul of, traveling theater troupes who put on shows in the woods, childhood loves who suddenly reappear, and none of it is something you can be sure is really happening. Aster’s made an unruly child of a film, and to try to make sense of it all on a first viewing might be impossible. Beau Is Afraid looks at the outsized effect festering childhood trauma can have on a man, and that’s complicated to explain to the person it’s happening to, let alone an audience of outsiders.
It’s a whirlwind throughout and the script seems like a free association exercise at times. It’s as if every time Aster had an intrusive thought, instead of brushing it aside, he hastily put it down on paper, kept it in multiple drafts, brought the script to production meetings, people read it, people worked to realize that idea with hours of work, they readied it on stage, actors performed it, they shot it, saw it in the daily rushes, kept it, months later they chose the best cut for the edit and watched it over and over again as they finalized the movie and voilà! Here we are.
All of it is convincingly brought to life, and Aster knows how to work things into a frenzy better than most, but there’s a sinking feeling it’s somewhat of a cinematic tantrum. Almost impressive to behold, but hard to take seriously. It’s a shame, because even if labeled as a pseudo-comedy, Aster does have something to say with all the hubbub.
The unrelenting chaos of Beau Is Afraid ends up wearing you thin, but on the way there’s laughs, gaps, and plenty of WTF before exasperation sets in as Aster doesn’t seem to have thought of a resolution for the cinematic circus act. Your ability to enjoy the ride will determine whether you come away from Beau Is Afraid satisfied or you feel like your time was wasted.
Aster is a unique voice in the cinematic landscape and his last two films breathed new life into the horror genre. He has ideas, and the technical skill to realize them, but Beau Is Afraid feels visionless and held together by a thin tether at times. The fear, should this be a sign of what’s to come from Aster, is him earning an unfortunate reputation that sees his future films’ trailers begin with “from the mind of”. You don’t want to be that guy.