Beau Is Afraid review: Bloat, thy name is Beau

Oh boy this is going to be difficult to review. Much like The Matrix , unfortunately no one can be told what Beau Is Afraid is, you have to see it for yourself, but we may not recommend you do that as we get further in.

You may have seen Beau Is Afraid described as a horror comedy, but it really isn’t. It has also been categorised as a surrealist tragedy, but that’s not quite on the nose either.

Even the official description of the movie from now beloved movie house A24 doesn’t go very far to explain what you can expect: “A paranoid man embarks on an epic odyssey to get home to his mother in this bold and ingeniously depraved new film from writer/director Ari Aster.”

Aster of Midsommar and Hereditary fame is joined by storied actor Joaquin Phoenix as the titular Beau, who, as you may have guessed by the header image above – taken from the official movie poster – also appears as this character in multiple stages of life in this one three hour movie.

So with all of that swirling in your mind we can return to the question of what this movie is, but it is the movie itself that answers the question. In one scene an injured and already drugged up Beau is forced to smoke something by a pair of teenagers. He sheepishly asks them what the smoke is, and they reply “it’s three things”.

And that’s a bit of meta commentary about the movie itself. It’s really several movies, TV shows, ideas, stage plays, animations, story books, dream sequences, pocket lint and loose change all packed into one experience.

At this point you may expect that there’s at a central story or at the very least a loose theme to tie it all together, but no. Without spoiling anything we’re pretty sure the titular Beau isn’t even the same person throughout the three hours. And we don’t mean that in some psychological sense where we grows mentally to become a different person, but is literally a different person at times.

To give you at least a starting point, the inciting moment in the movie is that Beau is going to visit his mother. It’s that simple really, a trip to mom that goes wrong. As you can tell from the trailers that isn’t what happens and Beau is seemingly tortured, chased and beaten within an inch of his life.

And for all of it Phoenix really delivers. There really is no weird or outlandish character that this man cannot play and he gave it 110 percent here. For the amount of bizarre nonsense and head-pounding trauma Beau experiences, Phoenix is right there with the audience as their surrogate for the insanity.

Equally impressive is the rather large cast. We actually recommend that you don’t read the cast list so you can be surprised by who shows up. There’s a common problem in a character-focused movie like this where the rest of the cast can put in a lesser performance, but that isn’t the case here and everyone is a joy to watch.

Unfortunately the joy from the acting and direction cannot stand up to the random, incoherent nature of the movie. The ugly truth is this: Beau Is Afraid seemingly has no intention, no central message or core to it. Each segment of the movie fails to build upon the other, call backs to earlier don’t serve to progress anything and, well, nothing really matters.

Listen it’s okay to make a three hour epic that is supposed to be an acid trip or dream sequence, but everything has to have a point to it. Near the end of the movie it seems like you can see that the filmmakers knew this and tried to show in some random overarching narrative, but it comes so late and makes so little sense that it’s just another idea for the idea pyre.

Aster is both the writer and director of this movie and it feels like, after his past successes, everyone else involved in the film didn’t have enough authority to suggest edits or to focus the mania inherent in this mess. Beau Is Afraid is a tale told by a great filmmaker, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Thankfully, however, that sound and fury is very pleasing.

The art direction, costuming, music, set design and special effects are all top notch. When we found ourselves bored and frustrated with what was happening in the movie, we could at least enjoy what it looked and sounded like.

The lack of focus in this movie does at least lend itself to a lot of visual auditory variety. In the three hours the audience gets to see and hear quite a lot, even more so than the pure run time would suggest. We’d be remiss to spoil any of it but those who are getting tired in the theatre need to only wait around 20 minutes before things change entirely, again.

This will lead to frustration as characters and plots are thrown away just as soon as you’re becoming attached to them, but you learn after the first hour or so that this is just the nature of the beast.

Should you see Beau Is Afraid? Only if you have a real, genuine tolerance for indulgent filmmaking and the full knowledge that almost all of what you see won’t make sense, then go for it.

If you’re the kind of person who has ever turned off a movie or, worse, actually left a theatre after already paying for a movie, then stay far away.

Everyone else in the middle will still find Beau Is Afraid to be a hard swallow and that’s kind of the point for a piece of art like this.



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