“Beau Is Afraid” was written and directed by Ari Aster and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Beau Wassermann, a middle-aged and anxious man petrified by pretty much everything and everyone in existence. Over the course of three exhausting hours, we follow his journey to his mom’s house.
The first 40 minutes of “Beau Is Afraid” are spectacular. They’re a surreal metaphor for anxiety, putting Beau in intense everyday situations with plenty of humor and absurdity. The events occurring around him are heavily implied to be in his head, and it was an absorbing experience that worked spectacularly. However, after a certain point, the film decided to stop doing this and then became a meaningless, meandering, random endurance exercise that ran on for way too long. There’s no discernible plot, momentum, or interesting themes propelling the movie for the remaining 2 hours and 20 minutes, so it’s just a self-indulgent and pretentious nightmare to get through.
Ari Aster proves himself to be a talented filmmaker from a visual standpoint. Each frame of “Beau Is Afraid” is absolutely gorgeous and unique with endless details. Yet as a writer, Aster is narcissistic, sloppy, incompetent, and completely apathetic to making an enjoyable experience for the viewer. Worst of all, he seems to have no idea as to what this film should even be about. He has a wimpy character and a semi-surreal atmosphere, but that’s it. Nothing is cohesive or satisfying. The pacing is all over the place and the runtime is borderline criminal. The film also forgets whether it’s supposed to be allegorical or literal, as it sometimes seems to all be in Beau’s mind but at other moments feels more like a supernatural journey meant to be taken seriously. The film is such a punishing mess, and because it’s so damn long the viewer just loses all investment at the one hour mark, so no matter how beautiful the film looks the audience just stops caring.
Instead of making this pseudo-intellectual nonsense exclusively targeted toward himself, Aster should’ve compressed the first 40 minutes into a 25-minute-long short film. It’s impossible to make a feature-length film with such a flimsy premise. Even 90 minutes is too long of a runtime. Yet Aster couldn’t resist making this filth longer than “The Godfather.”
Joaquin Phoenix is the greatest actor working today, and no role has proven his talent more than his work as Beau. This certainly isn’t his best performance, but it is his most impressive in that he triumphs over the repugnant material he has to work with. He tries his damndest to make this film even remotely watchable for the full three hours. Phoenix does everything possible to milk as wide a range of emotions out of this incredibly thin and underdeveloped character, and he somewhat succeeds. Beau is actually pretty likable and I feel that if played by a less gifted actor, he would be insufferable. It’s just a shame that Phoenix dedicated so much of his time to shooting this dumpster fire (which was originally FOUR hours by the way) instead of making a few short indie films.
“Beau Is Afraid” is one of the most pointless, self-indulgent, hollow, and disrespectful films I’ve seen in quite some time. It takes a legendary actor and shoves him into the mud just so Ari Aster can vent all his mommy issues to the bewildered audience. Since this film is competently made, has a terrific opening, and I simply feel bad for Joaquin Phoenix, I don’t think it’s an abomination the likes of this year’s “Paint,” but it’s still a miserable experience that I strongly recommend against seeing.