Beau is Afraid review: Cruel and unusual ★☆☆☆☆

4 mins read

Director Ari Aster has risen to the top of independent cinema on the strength of two acclaimed and creative horror films with A24 – Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019).

His latest film, Beau is Afraid, reflects this remarkable breakthrough: it is unmistakably the work of an indie filmmaker with sky-high confidence.

The film is a lengthy, rambling journey with its roots in Greek tragicomedy, following the titular Beau, an inept middle-aged man, as he bumbles his way along to the funeral of his overbearing mother.

Beau’s progress is hindered by a series of surreal, disorienting and menacing scenarios, the audience never sure if what they’re seeing on screen is his own paranoid and anxiety-ridden imagination or a drug-fuelled nightmare, or something else entirely. Either way, this odyssey is plain odious for the viewer.

Joaquin Phoenix plays the title role on autopilot: simply taking his portrayal of the Joker, turning that character’s malevolence down to zero and pitiful-ness up to eleven.

Much of the film’s attempts at humour stem from the Beau’s weak and passive nature: he is a passenger in his own life, swung violently from one nightmarish episode to the next. However, the experience as a viewer quickly shifts from darkly entertaining to unpalatably sadistic.

Beau is Afraid is a mean, cruel and at times downright nasty watch without ever earning the right to be: behind its indie film aesthetic, there is nothing of any value being said here. The world of film is a deeply unpleasant place for its audience to spend three hours.

Image Credit: A24

The film is by far its worst in its final act, where Beau is verbally stripped to pieces in a tiresome monologue from his late mother. Patti LuPone makes the best of a poorly-written role but the speech serves only to slow the pace and drag out the ending of already very long movie.

The film is let down by its direction rather than its performances, which across the board are good. Nathan Lane is particularly memorable as a suburban family man/surgeon who insists Beau recuperates in his teenage daughter’s bedroom after one of his many horrific accidents, and then won’t let him leave.

The only thing resembling a redeeming quality from the directorial side of things is one artful sequence where Beau watches a stage play that parallels his own life. Much like the rest of the film however, this sequence is meaningless and runs far too long, with the audience aware that it will soon be interrupted by another senseless violent episode.

For all its sins, the over-indulgent length of Beau is Afraid is by far its worst and tells of a lack of discipline from Aster, a real shame after the success of his first two features.

At the end of three hours, which felt more like three days, there was a collective sigh from the audience in Screen 8 of Falkirk Cineworld – at once a one-breath elegy to an evening they would never get back and the lament of choosing poorly at the box office.

The film is easily the worst of 2023, and I would go as far as saying it holds the dishonour of being the worst film I have ever watched in a cinema.

Aster has clearly made Beau is Afraid for his own amusement. If only he’d had the decency to keep it to himself.

Feature Image Credit: A24

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