Joaquin Phoenix takes 3-hour Kafkaesque journey in ultra-weird Beau is Afraid
In writer/director Ari Aster’s relatively brief feature career, he has already established himself as a horror filmmaker of note, helming the acclaimed Hereditary in 2018 and the gonzo Midsommar in 2019. As creative and interesting as those films are, they have nothing on the out-there energy that inhabits every second of his new film, the three-hour long Beau is Afraid.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau, an anxiety-ridden milquetoast who is barely capable of stepping out of his own apartment. He lives in a hellhole of a neighborhood where the streets are filled with unsavory characters, a naked man stabs people regularly, and a general feeling of danger pervades the area.
When Beau receives news that his mom has died, his attempts at getting back for her funeral are repeatedly delayed, including encounters with Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane), a well-meaning but strange couple; a theater troupe that lives in the woods; and more. All the while, Beau finds himself remembering and/or hallucinating about his childhood, his possible future, and the meaning of his life.
The term “Kafkaesque” has be applied to a lot of different movies over the years, but Aster has made a film with the concept firmly at the front of the story. The absurdity of the world through which Beau lives and travels cannot be overstated. Some people seem relatively normal on the surface, but almost everyone acts in wholly unnatural manners, as if the off-the-wall things taking place around them aren’t actually happening.
The film is so packed with bizarre sights and occurrences that you can almost forgive its inordinate length. Weird stuff happens constantly, making for a highly entertaining story that’s also enormously confusing. There are times when Aster keeps the camera stationary on Beau's face for what seems like minutes, and despite the slowness of these and other scenes, Aster has sufficiently conditioned the audience to patiently wait for the next crazy thing to occur.
Anyone hoping for more horror from the burgeoning horror auteur is mostly left wanting. While much of what Beau experiences in the story is worthy of its own section in hell, very little qualifies as something that would scare modern audiences. There is way more comedy in the film, as it's next to impossible to witness all the inexplicable spectacles it has to offer and not laugh, despite the occasional tragic event that happens.
Phoenix is uniquely suited for this role, as he’s shown the ability to be a chameleon throughout his career. The sad-sack nature of Beau comes through in almost everything he does, and the bewilderment he expresses makes him the ideal avatar for the audience. Also great are Ryan, Lane, Parker Posey, Zoe Lister-Jones, and, in a late but crucial role, Patti Lupone. A special note should be made of finding Phoenix doppelganger Armen Nahapetian to play the young Beau; the fact that he’s real and not a CGI creation is perhaps one of the strangest things in the film.
It takes a certain level of patience to stick with Beau is Afraid all the way through, but those who do will be rewarded with an imaginative story that never stops being thought-provoking, even if you’re not entirely sure what Aster is trying to say.
Beau is Afraid opens in theaters on April 21.