Beau is Afraid (2023) Spoiler-Free Review
I deeply dislike Ari Aster’s previous movies. That being said, when I heard people calling his new surrealist dark comedy ‘career-ending,’ I knew I had to see it; especially after learning that it stars Joaquin Phoenix. Based on the trailer, all I can say plot-wise is that Beau is about to travel and visit his mother, but chaos ensues, forcing him to face his greatest fears along the way. I appreciated how the road-movie framing reflects Beau’s journey to form a healthy relationship with both himself and his mom. It’s a compelling exploration of family that also dives deep into the psyche’s darkest corners; but despite working with so many successful storytelling elements, from the acting to the set design, I think my issue with this movie is the same one I had watching Aster’s first two films.
Before I get into dislikes, I do think it’s important to talk about where this film succeeds, because it does succeed in a lot of areas, including the visuals. I love how this movie looks. As with Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), Aster’s carefully-crafted aesthetics do a lot of work as far as deepening our understanding of character and plot. The sets here are wonderfully built, doing a great job of establishing tone and capturing Beau’s mental state. At one point, when Beau is delirious, the setting morphs into a kind of stage play backdrop, communicating just how detached his character is from reality. Along with this beautifully psychological approach to set design, there are a lot of shifts in lighting that help viewers track Beau’s internality, switching from warm to cold tones. This purposeful use of light is further emphasized by the shot composition. He’s frequently shown wandering alone through vast, sometimes dangerous landscapes. The way the camera is positioned lets us feel his loneliness and anxiety. The camerawork overall is very dynamic, switching to handheld in hectic scenes, taking some interesting angles but often staying still, focused on Phoenix’s face, letting his acting speak for itself.
As usual, Joaquin does no wrong in this performance. The emotional range on display is something to behold, switching from bewildered to panicked to euphoric in a single scene. The sex scene is a great example of this (you’ll see what I mean.) While there’s no doubt that Phoenix is the star of this off-kilter comedy, audiences can’t deny the importance of the supporting cast. Patti LuPone’s role of Beau’s mother, Mona, is reminiscent of your favorite supervillain, yet she also manages to pack so much nuance into the character. We see her desperation to be close with her son, to the point where she drives him away. It adds a layer of tragedy to this film, emphasizing its mythic elements. The characters themselves are phenomenally crafted; I think it’s the story arc overall that really stopped this movie from being amazing (for me).
Just like every other Ari Aster film, I loved the visuals, I loved the acting, but the writing leaves a lot to be desired. There’re definitely some gems in the dialogue, and I found the movie to make great use of tonal contrast. One of the funniest moments is when Beau gets some fairly grim news, which was an enjoyable jumbling of emotions. Compared to his first two films, the writing here is much more structured; but I do think there were a few scenes that were a bit self-indulgent, lingering almost too long. This could be purposeful, and I don’t mind a good long shot, but I found myself wondering what those moments added to our understanding of the character or story or tone. The ending also feels a bit nihilistic, which is a problem I have with all of Aster’s films; but that’s more of a personal gripe than anything else. Some may love this characteristic of his writing, others may disagree that it’s nihilistic at all. I just struggle to see what development his characters ever undergo. It seems like they suffer, then the movie ends. Maybe that’s a comment on the human condition, but to me it’s a rather obvious one. There’s also a scene where Beau’s running from a group of homeless people, who are portrayed as being incredibly violent, which felt off in a lot of ways. Whatever the director meant to do there, he did not stick the landing.
Despite these complaints, this is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had in an Ari Aster film. The visual language is as slick as ever, the acting is on point, and even the sound design is very purposeful, drawing us not into Beau’s immediate surroundings, but into his psycho-emotional landscape. As far as this critic is concerned, Aster’s career will live to see another day. Watch Beau is Afraid in a theater near you; it’s one of those movies that’s so beautifully made, and ridiculously funny, the big screen is maybe the only place it can be fully appreciated. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog in this way including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!