You can run, you can hide, but you will never escape the primal instinct to please your mother. That is one way to summarize Ari Aster’s newest entry into his canon of psychological horror. To summarize whatever plot there is, you could say it is that a terrified man must overcome one grueling obstacle after another in the course of a quest to visit his mother–which I guess says a similar thing.
Many people are comparing Beau Is Afraid to Synecdoche NY, which is one of my favorite films. I can definitely see the similarities. In both films, middle-aged men who seem to lack any agency over their lives see the world, which they perceive as hopelessly and relentlessly nightmarish, reflected back to them through their own miserablist lens. In both films, the grim nature of their lives is so ridiculously outlandish as to become darkly humorous at times.
I would say the main difference between these two films, other than one of subtlety, is that Aster’s film is more surreal—surreal in the classical, absurdist Bunuel sense of the word. Just like you can’t leave the dinner party, you can’t leave the all-seeing, all-judging eye of your mother. Beau Is Afraid utilizes dream logic and dream symbolism, sometimes in a quite literal psychological way, in much the same way classical surrealism did.
Another difference is that Synecdoche NY reads more like a twisted narrative, and Beau Is Afraid reads more like a painting. Where Synecdoche NY relies heavily on dialogue and, as the title implies, wordplay, Beau Is Afraid relies heavily on visuals. Ari Aster has already proven himself to be a master of nightmarish imagery, and he pushes that aesthetic to a new level in Beau Is Afraid, which is visually stunning even during the times where it may wander or falter narratively. I was particularly enchanted by a dreamlike sequence featuring old-fashioned paper-cut theatrical production design that didn’t really seem to fit anywhere within the general storytelling flow, except that it was yet another vision of Beau’s where he was working out his deep-rooted trauma surrounding birth and family ties.
Beau Is Afraid feels a little one-note at first blush–like it’s using a lot of different sets and sequences to tell the same story without ever offering any clear revelations or resolutions. Perhaps that’s deceptive, though. The film does seem to have something to say or at least to show about urban and suburban living, medication, parental expectations, and procreation. Operating at its three-hour run time while maintaining its energetic visual creativity I’m sure it will prove, much like a film like Synecdoche NY, to reveal more secrets and Easter eggs about its nature and meaning over repeated viewings.
Some movies feel like they should be three hours long. This one felt a bit exhausting, but maybe that was because of its emotional toll. Joaquin Phoenix does an admirable job propping up the perpetually shell-shocked, stuttering Beau for that length of time, and I can only imagine what Aster’s actors had to endure to deliver their traumatic performances at this level of intensity. I think another reason Beau Is Afraid wore out its running time is that it felt a bit choppy. Transitions between its different episodes were so abrupt and dramatic that it didn’t feel like it all cohered in the end. I suppose that’s true of a lot of epic journeys like The Odyssey, though, and this feels like those classical mythical quests. Our hero is rescued, only to find himself out at sea and confronted by monsters again. He spends some strange time in a magical woodland of orphans understanding himself. In the last chapter, he has to confront some of his greatest enemies and fears.
I’m sure that when Ari Aster made Beau Is Afraid that he knew it wouldn’t be for everyone, and that he probably knew even the people it was “for” wouldn’t like every part of it. It feels to me like a personal movie where he probably got to do a lot if not most of the things he wanted to do. And as we’ve seen by the huge mark Aster has made on the horror genre, the visual playhouse in his mind is capable of generating some particularly intense and disturbing nightmare fuel. He’s turned that talent to the subject of family trauma in the past but this is the furthest he’s delved into that imagery while untying himself from conventional narrative form. It’s surely dividing his fans while also blazing a new trail for him as a surrealist filmmaker.
I usually prefer overly ambitious and flawed films to boring ones. Beau Is Afraid may lag at times but it included so many inventive surprises at every turn I could never in good faith never call it boring. It’s a movie that you continue to chew on and think about, and some of its images, like some in his previous films, will always remain lodged in my mind. To me, that is a sign of powerful filmmaking. Maybe his reach exceeds his grasp at times, but trying out this many grandiose visions and having as many succeed as they do is impressive.