REVIEW: Depressing ‘Beau is Afraid’ saved by biting, dark comedy and great performances
Joaquin Phoenix in 'Beau is Afraid.'

If you’re looking for uplifting cinema, then Beau is Afraid will not be for you. Writer and director Ari Aster fully leans into his nihilistic view of humanity with his latest full feature. Exploring themes of mental illness, societal decay, and interpersonal failings, Beau is Afraid is an epic journey of one unstable man as he tries to exist in a world that seems hellbent on hurting him. Unapologetic dark comedy and stellar performances save Beau is Afraid from being a complete three-hour slog of depressing events. Yet many viewers may leave the theater feeling drained and confused from the surrealist tragic-comedy, wondering if they were left truly entertained, or just deeply unsettled. Perhaps both?

Aster’s film follows a middle-aged man named Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix), who has lived most of his life in fear under the thumb of his seemingly overbearing mother. After starting a new medication for his anxiety, Beau attempts to visit his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death. It all goes terribly wrong, which sets off a chain of events that sends Beau on a journey that may or may not be delusional. What the audience is treated to is a series of happenings that explore Beau’s past and present, along with the cast of extreme characters he meets along the way.

First things first: Is this a horror film? Aster’s previous two movies Hereditary and Midsommar overtly were, but Beau is Afraid is a bit more subtle in its terror. While the earlier films had obvious villains and danger, this one takes a more philosophical approach to what humans may find scary. Society is Beau’s boogeyman. Other humans and their problems draw him into danger. All the little things that make up day-to-day existence, like medicine, housing, and pest control, have Beau constantly wondering if he might meet his demise. One could argue that Beau is Afraid is a very relevant movie, as the world reemerges from the COVID-19 pandemic with many people’s anxieties dialed up a few notches, as they side-eye their neighbors and fellow citizens.

This movie is bleak. If we are to go by this and his previous films, one could surmise that Aster doesn’t have much hope for humanity. The characters he writes are often broken and weighed down by their emotional baggage. People are often selfish and self-indulgent. Even characters who should be seen as more sympathetic in his films have deep flaws that make it hard to completely side with them. This all seems purposeful in Aster’s storytelling. While Hereditary and Midsommar played with the idea of hopelessness, Beau is Afraid fully realizes that theme. The issue with that sentiment is if one can be entertained if you don’t fully agree with the writer and director’s message and vision.

In a world where those in power often want working people to feel powerless against their oppression, Beau is Afraid almost feels like an acceptance of that notion. It seems to say that the world is messed up, including you, and ultimately we’re all alone in our minds and suffering. Or perhaps Aster is trying to convey that society is so tainted by consumerism, greed, and indulgence that it has deeply broken many of us beyond repair. Either way– it’s bleak.

Which doesn’t mean the dark comedy isn’t funny.

It very much is, and truly serves as the spoonful of sugar to help Aster’s “medicine” go down. Having this comedy running throughout also feels purposeful, as Aster seems to be saying that things in the world are so messed up, that we laugh to keep from screaming.

Amazing performances elevate the film as well. Phoenix is compelling as the constantly distraught Beau, while Patti LuPone and Zoe Lister-Jones (as different versions of Beau’s mother) give stellar performances that create the perfect throughline for the story. Aster’s cinematography and directing choices paint the screen with beautiful, haunting imagery.

Still, the movie didn’t need to be three hours long. It overstays its welcome, as it becomes clear that certain scenes could have been much shorter. The length is what ultimately may make many feel more unsettled than entertained, as there’s only so much tragedy in one sitting many can tolerate.

This reviewer does not agree with Aster’s message that humanity is beyond repair and irreparably broken. Yet cinema and stories don’t need to be experienced in echo chambers in order to be appreciated. Societal decay and stigma regarding mental illness are very relevant themes, and necessary to talk about. While many viewers (hopefully) don’t come to the director’s conclusion that it is all hopeless, it does serve as a way to garner conversation on what is actually possible.

Overall, if you’ve got three hours to spare and have the emotional fortitude to deal with an onslaught of disturbing events, then Beau is Afraid may be right up your alley. There are a number of scenes and performances that will no doubt have a lasting impact, with themes to unpack after the credits roll.

Beau is Afraid is now playing in theaters in the United States.

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Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.