The latest film by writer and director Ari Aster is out and it breaks the horror mold he set into place with his earlier acclaimed films, 2018’s “Hereditary” and 2019’s “Midsommar.” “Beau is Afraid” is a hero’s journey of a sort, the tale of a paranoid and anxious man who must travel to his mother’s house on the anniversary of his father’s death. Along the way Beau encounters various people and ends up in bizarre scenario after bizarre scenario. It is a study in what happens when someone takes the term “le petit mort” to the extreme and the cascading effect it can have on generations. Running at nearly 3 hours long this movie feels as if it is about an hour too long. There is a lot happening but so much of it feels unnecessarily drawn out and the pacing felt like it lagged at points.
Beau is played by Joaquin Phoenix and he is a powerhouse that keeps the movie flowing even at its most stilted and unbelievable moments with the perpetually bewildered expression in his eyes. His range covers the gamut from concerned, anxious, and paranoid, to terrified. His gaze is relentless throughout the course of the film. He is both watching and being watched. Patty LuPone is a formidable force as Beau’s toxic mother. There are other notable performances including young Kylie Rogers as the unpredictable Toni and Parker Posey as Elaine, a childhood friend of Beau’s. Nathan Lane made an appearance as a neighborly surgeon with big smiles that never reveal any hint of the truth.
The production design was remarkable with various sets full of self-referential texture, as Aster’s work tends to contain, although this film may have gone a bit overboard with all the clues. It felt as though certain scenes are meant to be paused and studied, which took me out of the moment because I was so concerned that I was missing some vital clue. There was a gorgeous extended sequence in the woods that was done with a mix of stunning practical effects and green screen. That sequence was a play, within a play, within a film which felt a little too convoluted.
The film has a great soundtrack with timely offerings from the underrated Bread and by Vanessa Carlton. The strangest needle drop was Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” which I will never be able to listen to in the same way again after this movie. The score was pitch perfect by Bobby Krlic, aka The Haxan Cloak, who also worked with Aster on “Midsommar.” The score blended seamlessly into the film building tension as it was needed. In the forest scene the music worked with the visuals beautifully to create a hopeful alternate dimension for Beau.
“Beau is Afraid” is surprisingly funny. The audience was laughing throughout the experience, at moments that were meant to elicit laughter and at moments that were presumably meant to be more serious, blurring the lines between comedy and horror. Unlike “Midsommar” and “Hereditary” there was little building terror for the audience throughout the movie. The horror is all reserved for Beau to experience. When the final monster was unveiled the audience laughed hard and long through the carnage. The movie recycles several elements from Aster’s other films including its jump scares which made them much less effective. It would have been better and more haunting to see something new at those points. It is never spelled out what is real and what is only happening in Beau’s mind which leaves the audience to debate and dissect long after the film has ended. Ari Aster may have single handedly forged a new type of horror/comedy film.