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April 21, 2023 / Sphere Films Canada

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Stephen McKinley Henderson,
Zoe Lister-Jones, Armen Nahapetian, Parker Posey, Patti LuPone

Directed By: Ari Aster

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.

Written By Darren

Rating 1 out of 5

Beau is Afraid may feature a truly free Ari Aster doing whatever he wants to do with A24’s largest budget to date, but his unchecked artistic vision is going to rub the majority audiences the wrong way and cannot even be saved by a truly fantastic supporting turn that makes you feel like Aster has some issues with mothers.

Ari Aster has proven himself to be a formidable director with his first two films: Hereditary and Midsommar. Both films were not only two of the most disturbing horror films in recent memory, but showcased a true artistic vision for creating mesmerizing films that rattled you to your core, while never for a second being afraid to push the audience to the limits of what they will tolerate with the story he was telling. For his third film, A24 has handed Aster the keys to the kingdom with the largest budget they have ever given to a filmmaker for a nightmarish odyssey that sees Aster dip his toes into the dark comedy genre. While there is no denying that Aster’s film once again showcases his talent as a director to create a visually arresting film, I found the rest of the film to be an absolute mess from start to finish.

It is hard to discuss the plot of Beau is Afraid without spoiling anything, as the marketing has kept the film’s true plot shrouded in secrecy. On the other hand, it’s hard to put into words the truly bizarre story that does unfold because it is alarming and polarizing to say the least. The film follows Joaquin Phoenix’s anxiety ridden Beau who embarks on a long journey home to see his mother. What unfolds is a true odyssey in which Beau must confront his darkest fears and grapple with the complex relationship he has with his mother Mona.

There are lots of ideas at play in Aster’s screenplay, and while the first half of the film does not get off to a bad start, mixing Aster’s wicked torturing of his audience with a darkly comedic tone, it quickly goes off the rails around the midway mark. Once the animated fever dream sequence begins at the halfway mark, Aster is either going to hook audiences with his dark and demented vision, or completely lose them like myself when I realized there was somehow still another ninety minutes left in the film. The various themes at play never fully come together, in true A24 fashion, leaving many questions unanswered and rendering major portions of the film playing no greater purpose to the larger story being told, such as the time in which Beau spends with Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan’s characters. It begs the question of how much of the film happened in Beau’s mind and was a hallucination, and how much was real, that when combined with that ending, you really are not left with any answer as to what the heck just happened. Nor does it help that I guessed one of Aster’s big twists in the final act very early on, greatly diminishing the effect the reveal had on the story as I thought it was obvious that it was coming. Sure, there are some truly hilarious moments in a total “what the heck did I just witness” kind of way, and some moments that you won’t believe were ever captured on film (specifically in the film’s final act), but not even this is enough to overcompensate for a screenplay that is bound to turn off viewers. Nevermind the three hour runtime for the film, which could have been easily been cut down to a closer to two hour runtime to create a much tighter story.

Visually speaking, the film is truly stunning to look at. Aster captures a true grand scale to his film, creating numerous unique locations over the course of Beau’s journey home. The production design is excellent, most notably in the animated dream sequence which mixes live action and animation in a way that I have not seen before on screen. It showcases where lots of Aster’s budget went, as these are incredible sets for a film of this size and it looked truly stunning in the IMAX format. Combined with the visuals was a great compilation soundtrack featuring some truly outstanding needle drops including a perfectly placed use of “Everything I Own” by Bread and the most bizarre and unforgettable use of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” that you won’t ever forget.

Aster has always had an impressive cast for his films, typically anchored by one outstanding performance (Toni Collette in Hereditary and Florence Pugh in Midsommar), but Beau is Afraid features his most impressive cast to date. Led by Joaquin Phoenix, and featuring talents such as Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Parker Posey and Richard Kind, the film appears to be in capable hands. Lane and Ryan are both very good in their roles, finding a delicate balance between comedy and horror in creating their characters, while Posey and Kind make an impression in their single scenes. Given his pedigree as an actor, I was disappointed by Phoenix’s performance which I can only describe as whiny and irritating. He played it well, but his performance got on my nerves very quickly and did not have the depth or gravitas that he normally brings to a role.

Truly, the only saving grace of the film was the formidable LuPone as Beau’s mother Mona. A legendary actress of the theater, LuPone has been known to wow audiences with her performances. I was lucky enough to see her live in the gender swapped production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company during which LuPone had to shut down a seven minute standing ovation mid show so the musical could finish. That is how talented of an actress she is. And while she only has a short amount of screentime, LuPone gives the most riveting performance of the year to date! Giving a whole new meaning to mommy issues, LuPone wows with a dark and terrifying turn as Mona, in a matter of seconds telling the audience everything they need to know about her character and fully explaining why Beau is so afraid of his mother. To be frank, you would expect him to be more afraid of his mother given the loop LuPone throws the audience through. Everything from her disarming demeanor, the way she chews up her dialogue and launches verbal daggers at Phoenix, to the screams of her agony, LuPone is coming in hot for another award towards her EGOT with this performance. While the film overall may not connect with Academy voters for many categories, I truly think that LuPone’s name will be thrown around the Best Supporting Actress category by the end of the year, because there is no movie without her performance and you won’t ever forget Mona.

While I do respect A24 championing artistic freedom and letting Ari Aster do whatever he wants for his third film, I truly loathed almost every second of this film. It is one that is going to divide audiences, leaving some heralding it as a cinematic masterpiece, while many like myself will be looking for answers as to how they just lost three hours of their lives (or as I say, two hours and forty four minutes because there was fifteen minutes of Patti LuPone giving an sensational performance). While it is easy to get lost in the visually incredible film that Aster has directed, his screenplay is a mixed bag of ideas with many that never fully form, and aside from a truly outstanding performance from theatre legend Patti LuPone as Beau’s mother that will shake audiences to their core, Beau is Afraid is the worst film I have experienced on the big screen in a long time.

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