“Beau is Afraid,” pure, unadulterated Ari Aster brain-scrambling art

Ryan Ranc, Senior Film Columnist

“Beau is Afraid,” the newest film from writer and director Ari Aster of “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,”, follows Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) as he takes a journey home from his city apartment to his family’s stunning home to see his mother while combating obstacles thrown at him from all directions. The journey takes him to strange settings in which he meets people that either aid him or harm him as he not only travels to see his mother, but reflects on why he behaves the way he does.

This movie feels like Aster’s work in its purest form — undamaged by the hand of executive power. Aster clearly received the creative freedom and high budget to make a flick that feels entirely like him. That’s where the beauty of “Beau is Afraid” lies: a filmmaker taking total control of a project to make it exactly as they want. The film shows off not only in the expertly crafted set design and shot structures, but also in its three-hour runtime that makes audiences feel with every second. Yet, somehow, it leaves audiences wishing it was longer.

Aster clearly wants audiences to dissect this movie frame for frame because, upon first watch, it feels as though the audience becomes collectively lost in a maze of chaos and confusion as the story unfolds across the silver screen. Audiences will likely leave not understanding much of the movie except what is blatantly stated to them. Aster manipulates his world and audience to allow only for comprehension of surface-level plot components. One, or even multiple rewatches, would help the film’s deeper meanings become somewhat clearer. Aster’s creative voice feels very Kaufman-esque in this romp, while still crafting his own uniquely sick and twisted Freudian narrative, all in the name of making himself laugh.

“Beau is Afraid” feels deeply more jovial and darkly comedic compared to Aster’s previous works which are seemingly much more horrific. That being said, though, “Beau is Afraid” pulls no punches and injects unique horror into every crack and crevice of its story. Visual elements guide this terror, from a “Wizard of Oz”-like narration sequence made to look like a stage play to a mouthless humanoid that scolds Beau as he walks through woods. The film’s confusing elements and eerie story beats feel unrelenting and make for an experience that’ll have audiences leaving the theater utterly confused, yet in awe.

Joaquin Phoenix gives an outstanding performance as the titular character Beau, who lives in a world of terror due to the way his mother raised him. Because of this, Beau behaves in a way that seems to showcase that while his body ages, his mind remains childlike. All of his decisions fall onto those around him. His anxiety and “mommy issues” make themselves ever-present through his arc and allow audiences to feel empathy and a connection to the journey he takes, not only to see his mother, but in his own mind. Never once do audiences find themselves unsupportive of Beau, which aids this hero’s adventure.

This Freudian voyage feels episodic in structure, much like an epic which benefits from its elongated runtime. The film’s ending begs viewers to self-reflect and practically forces audiences to either rewatch or dive deeper into the film as a whole to understand the storybook ending of Beau’s Odyssey.

“Beau is Afraid” marks a turning point in style for Ari Aster considering the creative freedoms he enjoyed for this project. The movie will appeal to all audiences, but those who can sit through it — and even rewatch it in search of a deeper meaning — will find a great deal of value in Aster’s nightmarish creation.

4 rewatches necessary to comprehend out of 5