I think it’s important to state this right at the top when reviewing a sure to be divisive film like this. Regardless of my thoughts on the movie, you should see it for yourself and make up your own mind if you’re interested. That being said, I can’t help but be absolutely gobsmacked, and not in a good way, by Beau is Afraid. As you can see in the title…Joey is Confused (and a little bit angry). Bloated and indulgent, this is the sort of work that gives a stink to a personal project from an up and coming auteur. Closer to a prank than actual cinema, at least to me, it has so little to offer, while subjecting you to so much, it becomes a Job-like experience, which is ironic given the torture our title character goes through.
You have to respect Ari Aster for getting Beau is Afraid produced and out into the world. That’s different than enjoying the film, which is befuddling, massively unenjoyable, and three hours of my life that I’ll never get back. It tested my patience, offering up only occasional giggles and a few WTF moments that you wouldn’t believe even if I spoiled them here (I won’t). Suffice it to say, regardless of whether you like this final product or not…it’s a lot.
Any sort of narrative description is a fool’s errand here, since this is nearly three hours of largely plotless meandering. Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man-child, dealing with arrested development and all sorts of issues, living very much in the shadow of his successful mother (Patti LuPone). As a child, Beau (Armen Nahapetian) and his mother (Zoe Lister-Jones) had a complicated relationship, made all the more so by a revelation about his father and how he came to no longer be among the living. In the present, Beau lives in an apartment on a city block that appears to be the absolute worst one on the planet. Today, he’s planning on catching a plane to see his mom. Of course, that doesn’t go according to plan, setting him off on a journey that will be one torturous side-quest after the next.
Embarking on an odyssey from his apartment to his mother’s house, it becomes one nightmare after the next. He’s more or less adopted by a couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan) who hit him with their car. He stumbles upon a bizarre performance in the forest that seems to be about him. The list goes on. Then, once he gets to the house, things get weird, and that’s saying something.
Joaquin Phoenix is alternating between compelling moments and wild over-acting, which goes for several other members of the cast. Phoenix is in nearly every scene (Armen Nahapetian is in the few he’s not in, and Nahapetian is fine), so he’s carrying the weight of Aster’s vision. Sometimes, he takes it in interesting directions. Too often, it just doesn’t work, which afflicts his co-stars as well. Notably, Patti LuPone has some real highlights and also some scenery chewing. Zoe Lister-Jones is more consistent, but given less of the showcase. Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan are somehow among the least weird characters, and they’re still pretty weird. Rounding out the lot are the likes of Julia Antonelli, Michael Gandolfini, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Richard Kind, Denis Ménochet, Parker Posey, Kylie Rogers, Hayley Squires, and more.
No one will accuse Ari Aster of playing it safe here. By comparison, Hereditary and Midsommar are mainstream pictures. All of his films have been Aster working out his issues, with Beau is Afraid being clearly his most personal work. At the same time, you quickly realize you don’t want to work out his issues with him, especially as filtered through Beau in this movie. Aster never does a good job investing you in the character. You feel for him, but mainly because the flick is so consistently cruel to him. I don’t think Aster necessarily hates his protagonist, but the cruelty and sense of consistent meanness is decidedly off-putting. Beau is Afraid also lacks any sense of pacing, so even if the visuals are consistently arresting, it’s all a part of an experience that asks a lot and gives almost nothing back. Truly, I can’t imagine this not getting an F CinemaScore when it opens wide in a week. It’s so bizarre and befuddling, any mainstream audience will almost certainly reject it. That’s not a value judgment, however. That’s just an educated prediction.
Beau is Afraid was not my cup of tea, and that’s putting it mildly. Aster doesn’t ever avoid a big swing, but this just did not connect. Now, if you love this film and it becomes your favorite of 2023, I’m not telling you that you’re wrong. I’m merely saying that the experience that I had with this movie was mostly a miserable one. So, that’s where I’m coming from, as you’ve seen above. Your mileage may vary, and guess what? That’s the magic of the cinematic experience. We all get to have our own.
[…] Film Review: Joey is Confused After Having Been Subjected to ‘Beau is Afraid’ […]