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Beau is Afraid Review

Even though Beau is Afraid is only his third feature film, the space in which Ari Aster finds the horror in his stories is already as established as any other filmmaker in the genre’s history could claim. Love is an instinct rather than a feeling, detached from caring in any positive sense. Rather than being the bedrock of a safe space, Aster tends to present it as a set of behaviours that can be evil just as they can be good.

In a world where safe spaces are little more than facades for the wicked behind them, it’s no wonder that the titular Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is so afraid. Told in the form of a self-contained quadrilogy, Beau is Afraid is unmistakeably a film from the mind of Ari Aster. It’s a film that makes the mundane terrifying in a way that also makes it magical, and as a result, becomes an instant classic of absurdist cinema.

Anyone familiar with Aster’s early short, Beau, will immediately recognise the protagonist. An anxiety-filled middle-aged man encounters a string of everyday problems that usually wouldn’t present as anything unusual, but to Beau they’re the things that prevent him from leading a normal life. It’s unclear as to how much of what we see is reality, and how much is simply a visualisation of the warped terror that exists in the bubble of Beau’s mind. But what is clear, is that it’s a deeply traumatic experience either way.

He can’t sleep because of a neighbour sliding notes under his door insisting he stops all of the noise that he isn’t making, the neighbourhood he lives in is violent to the point that he has no choice but to sprint to his apartment building every time he returns home, and he’s under time pressure to make it to the airport for a trip to his mother’s on the anniversary of his father’s passing. It all becomes overwhelming when he loses his key, and then swallows a tablet before realising that none of the taps in his apartment are working, raising an internal alarm at the instruction never to take them without water.

All of the low-to-high-level stresses in his life conspire and corroborate to become an unbelievable mass of debilitating anxiety that stops him from being able to do anything. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his mother has taken his set of circumstances as a personal rejection. Beau is bombarded with so much that it begins to create a sort of delirium in us. The only way that we can deal with so much overstimulation and tension is by laughing at just how far it’s all going, so we do.

Aster has described Beau is Afraid as an “anxiety-comedy”, and that seems an entirely appropriate way to encapsulate it. Laughing becomes a coping mechanism during an unrelenting assault that lasts three hours – a runtime that flies past with the expediency of a Simpsons episode due to the sheer amount of content that’s packed into it.

Beau is Afraid never outstays its welcome in any setting because, by the time we’re allowed to take a breath and become comfortable, his life gets turned on its head. As a result, there are multiple points where it just doesn’t appear to make sense that we’ve ended up where we are. But to its credit, every time that happens it only takes a quick retracing of the steps that got us there to reveal that it’s all completely logical, it’s just at the furthest reaches of where it can still be considered to make any sense whatsoever.

With fantasy elements that exist in the space in between reality and experience, it becomes reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Big Fish. The major difference is that everything in Big Fish is working to devastate us in its big finish, whereas Beau is Afraid is far more interested in overwhelming us to the point of a deep sense of discomfort which it can then manipulate into any emotion that we will let it.

It carries a similar manic energy to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, and may fall victim to a similar criticism in that it’s a film of terrific artistic merit, but that it makes us feel a certain way that we don’t like. It’s almost as if it’s an exercise in finding some empathy for what Beau goes through, and by finding that we have to experience it ourselves on some level. The trouble is that what he goes through is of such an extreme level, that experiencing any degree of it just isn’t very nice.

Whether Beau is Afraid is outright funny or not is beside the point. It’s a twisted fantasy representation of what real people experience, and it treats it with enough respect that we have to come up with our own coping mechanisms to deal with it. As is usual with Ari Aster’s filmography, it will have us questioning the safe spaces around us with a new, villainous eye, but what could be scarier than that?

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