Renowned activist and abolitionist, Frederick Douglas once said: „It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken man.” This crazy but important movie is a great reminder of that.
“Beau Is Afraid” is a peculiar film that attempts to delve into the perspective of a deeply traumatized man-child named Beau. Directed by Ari Aster [Midsommar], according to the official summary the movie is a “surrealist tragicomedy horror” that draws inspiration from the works of Franz Kafka. Although Had Kafka been given the opportunity to watchit, he likely would not have approved of that description. While the film has its moments of brilliance and vibrance in creativity, it falls short of its own ambitions.
The film opens with a somewhat abstract – and somewhat forced – sequence depicting child labor. Needless to say, the tragedy of having a strained relationship with one’s mother or losing her altogether, comes with an unspeakable pain that can never truly fade. However, love, a sense of community and nurturing can provide solace and facilitate healing. Aster occasionally sheds light on that aspect brilliantly (think: “The Orphans of The Forest” bit). More of that, instead of different forms of “floating in mud” for the entire movie, would have probably served audiences better and created more shifts in dynamics.
From the opening lines of dialogue, the film’s comedic tone is foreshadowed. Our protagonist, Beau (surprise!) is at a session with his long-time psychologist. He shares about his fear of getting cancer by having had a sip of mouthwash the day before. It is immediately clear, Beau is in a fragile mental state. He is a man of countless anxieties and no emotional independence (from his mother). The story revolves around Beau’s attempt to return home after a long absence, intending to join his family in commemorating his father’s passing. It is soon revealed that our protagonist has never known his father, hinting at deep-rooted childhood trauma.
One of the greatest achievements the movie gets to is that it cleverly incorporates dark humor in a number of sequences. For instance, a child is clumsily testing a rifle in the background and a mother is scolding his boy while Beau walks through a market with a blank expression. A shoe being stabbed through Beau’s computer after other tenants took over and destroyed his apartment, is a stroke of bizarre genius.
As our main character navigates through his neighborhood we see suicide attempts, shooters, bystanders Instagram live-ing, strangled passerby and criminals stealing TV sets. Beau’s world is insane, chaotic and very much unsafe. Sequences like a dancer joyfully samba-ing amidst chaos demonstrate the film’s peculiarities, highlighting the director’s unique style at its finest. I would have appreciated more of that subtle, surreal humor throughout the entire movie.
Beau is plagued by fear, anxiety, trauma, and a general sense of unsafety. He battles anxieties, depression, agoraphobia, and relies on prescribed drugs, which often lead to hallucinations. As we get to see, drugs and smoking offer him temporary relaxation at best, serving with no real healing, only a more chaotic way of thinking and feeling. He is detached from reality.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers a solid performance, capturing Beau’s vulnerability and emotional turbulence. His admission, “I’m lost. I had an accident and I don’t know where I am,” neatly sums up the movie’s essence and Beau’s state of being.
The film’s sound editing and mixing are praiseworthy, not unlike the director’s mismatching choices in music. With the latter, he creates a nice contrast between on screen action and sound. However, the reliance on video game-like camera movements, especially during the first third of the film, detracts from the building tension and makes those scenes feel more like they are from an EA video game than from a movie. The filmmakers could have trusted the audience’s imagination and intelligence more, allowing us to think about what is coming or what is hiding in the corner. Viewers more often than not enjoy doubting the impending events, especially if that aligns with the main character’s own confusion and uncertainty. (think: “Rosemary’s Baby” for instance)
The movie’s ambition to emulate various styles and inspirations, including Bosch, Kafka, Polanski, Burton and more, results in a zigzagging experience lacking a coherent and powerful impact. The screenplay could have benefitted from additional guidance, perhaps from someone like Viktor Bodo, an expert in surrealism and adaptation of Kafka’s work.
The scene where Beau experiences a panic attack in the bathtub and catches sight of a stranger hanging from above – with a spider on his face – seemed straight on cartoonish. Especially from mid-way through, „Beau Is Afraid” simply reminded me of less successful Stephen King adaptations.
Beau is undoubtedly a troubled character, haunted by deep-seated childhood traumas that manifest in various forms. And while the movie attempts to explore his condition and perception of the world, it unfortunately does not have a firm arc or vision. Contrary to the film’s official description: there is not much of a journey going on here.
The mix of American and European arthouse aesthetics, while intriguing, does not help getting to a coherent cinematic experience either. Ultimately, “Beau Is Afraid” ends up being an overly ambitious, occasionally self-indulgent, blend of genres and inspirations sprinkled with some wonderful humor nuggets.
You can watch „Beau is Afraid” on Apple TV, Prime Video and Vudu.
~ by Dora Endre ~