Beau Is Afraid
Another deeply twisted exercise in degradation and despair from Ari Aster, but with an accompanying runtime that makes Midsommar look well-disciplined. Beau Is Afraid is Aster’s pitch for a sickly horror psych-out comedy, yet the most horrific part is how indulgent it is. Which is to say, no part of it isn’t, so if you enjoy spending 3 hours in Aster’s dungeon of a mind, this will probably be quite the rewarding experience. Otherwise, it’s torture.
I haven’t looked into Aster’s standing in the scheme of things. Distasteful preoccupations don’t necessarily signify a disposition towards actualised depravity, although they may (the ex-David Lynch). One thing is evident, though. His production has a dead man front-and-centre, since Joaquin Phoenix is no longer with us (and with his distinctly underwhelming presence in the trailer for Sir Ridders’ upcoming Napoleon, I suspect even the great unwashed will be reaching that conclusion). Assuming, for the sake of argument, Aster is untouched by hat status, blanche or noir, one can but speculate whether he was aware of this; there are doubtless levels of Hollywood not in the loop and levels that are. Certainly, I had to wonder at the anecdote that, during filming, Phoenix collapsed and lost consciousness “as a result of the physical intensity of his stunts”. Sure. That, or the Joaqlone was on the fritz.
Aster’s appreciation of existence is deeply misanthropic. He does horrible things to his protagonists – I guess you could call them that, although they’re more identifiably playthings – and shrugs at the jaundiced fate awaiting them. He’s Lynch without the true eccentricity or the sentimentality (if you could call it that: ironic sentiment might be better). His horror movies were built on reveals – albeit, in Midsommar’s case, it’s less a reveal than an exercise in characterised, abject stupidity – but Beau’s world is odious from the off. It’s no wonder he’s so adjectively encumbered (Disappointment Blvd. is a much better title, which means the movie probably didn’t deserve it).
While Aster’s milieu is profoundly unpleasant, I’ll be the first to admit that he’s technically a very capable director and proficient in the horror genre at conjuring unsettling, sinister, insidiously threatening landscapes. But is Beau is Afraid actually about anything beyond its appetite for the debased? What is Aster telling us in his account of baffled, bruised and bewildered Beau attempting to get home for his mother’s funeral? That he loves decapitations (see also Hereditary) and profoundly dysfunctional families (see also Hereditary, albeit the fixation here is pronouncedly oedipal, as embodied by an odiously vile matriarch and her sway over Beau’s idiot man-child)?
The Nation called it “a film excavated of subtext”, and I’d have to agree that any text that culminates with a penis-monster as a character’s father is skating on precipitously thin ice in terms of pronouncements that there’s anything going on beneath the surface (it is also a signal of Aster’s palpably juvenile sensibilities, the same ones that take unfettered delight in meanness and mutilation, both psychological and physical). Aster’s conceit might be that we’re all gibbering, ill-equipped children, unable to escape the spectres of our formative experiences and so finding trauma wherever we go, from unmasked urban isolation and anarchy to the dysfunctional underbelly of blissful suburban families, to the off-grid idyll of doing one’s own thing… until rude reality intrudes (he claimed Beau is Afraid is “about an unlived life… a guy who’s really trapped in himself, really, really, really trapped”. It might have helped, however, if the guy really, really, really felt like a real, real, real person, one we could invest something in).
And then there’s home itself. Any one of the homes Beau happens upon might have been a decent starting point. Certainly, there’s palpable futility in the apocalyptic cityscape of the early scenes. The homecare sequence, all surface smiles from Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane), before Toni (Kylie Rogers) drinks a pot of paint, seems poised for a satirical take riffing on Misery or The Beguiled, but Aster only has a sketch in him. He isn’t interested in exploring any of his ideas beyond the premise of an episodic odyssey offering no sanctuary. It suggests that life, per Aster, is something that happens to you. We are not active participants, hence the Truman Show-esque manner in which Beau has been under surveillance the entire time – from rich elites, no less, who fake their own deaths, prey on the young and have everyone in their pocket – and has no freewill or awareness of the illusion under which he lives.
About halfway through, Beau finds himself watching the travelling theatre troupe’s production and is transported, in very meta-fashion, into a production echoing his own life; it’s the kind of thing someone who has watched a few Charlie Kaufmann-penned movies but with no actual spark themselves thinks they can replicate. While one might readily deduce the entire movie is in Beau’s mind, or at very least from his surreally subjective viewpoint, here we get a full flight of fantasy, complete with flood (mudflood?), gender confusion (“Sometimes she will look like a man to you” of his wife), the nonsense of Pasteurian virus theory (the village was wracked by an “inexplicable plague”), and the full circle of the play within the play, whereby Beau as an old man is invited to a special play in the woods (in which his children are performing. Reunited, they ask “You’ve never been with anyone? Then how did you have any of us?” You know; it’s a joke. Beau is Forrest Gump).
Also on display are evil shrinks (Stephen McKinley Henderson evidencing that you absolutely should not trust doctor-patient confidentiality), Birthday Boy Stab Man, distended testicles (the hilarity!), projectile vomiting on a laptop and the repeated gift of a For the Boys CD (actually, that one did amuse me). The proceedings culminate (perhaps too strong a description) with Beau Isaac Wassermann being tried for his failures before his mom – strangled mom reconstituted – with Richard Kind appearing as her attorney Dr Cohen. That Beau should blow up/drown is unsurprising, but then, who cares what happens to Beau? Aster certainly doesn’t. It’s about as resonant as the end of Pierrot le Fou, but minus the oversized dynamite and a sense of improvisation or humour (Aster calls his world “evil comedy” but I’d subtract the “comedy” part of the description).
This is what you get from a student filmmaker with an unlimited budget (it was A24’s most expensive at $35m, so correspondingly must count as their biggest flop). Aster expressed bewilderment that anyone would finance it, but I presume, since his past form was good for their coffers, the company just went ahead. He has also variously described Beau is Afraid as a “nightmare comedy” “a Jewish Lord of the Rings, but [Beau’s] just going to his mom’s house“, and as “if you pumped a 10-year-old full of Zoloft, and [had] him get your groceries“. I mean…yeah. I’m all for directors being given free range, but there’s an increasing tendency for talented helmers believing their own hype, not only as talented writers but also profound thinkers. It’s a consequence of such delusions that monstrosities like mother! are unleashed upon the land.
Aster’s previous two, for all their faults, were clearly grounded in genre. Freed from those shackles – although, this is still undeniably horror at heart – Aster reveals obsessions that are alternately banal and puerile, wrapped up in a tediously fetid, corroded, inimical worldview. He said of the “cartoon” world of the movie, “It’s awful in all the ways that the world is awful…” But really, Beau is Afraid is awful in all the ways movies are awful, or can be. At one point, following the paint-ingestion incident, Beau frets “This ends up bad. It’s bad. It’s bad”. An acute summation of Aster’s film.