Beau Is Afraid: non-stop horror with nightmarish detail
While director Ari Aster’s previous forays into deep, existential horror (Hereditary and Midsommar) revelled in the suspension of all normalcy, his latest is more like a long, waking nightmare. Beau is Afraid, runtime and all, is a genuinely difficult watch - and may just prove a starting point for a new kind of fright.
Hereditary and Midsommar were, each in their own rights, breaths of fresh air in the horror genre. Rather than rely on jumpscares and the grizzly special effects alone, these culty flicks both implied a sort of greater conspiracy at work - turning its protagonists into mere pawns in the process.
This aspect of Aster’s approach takes centre stage in Beau Is Afraid. Beau not only has every cause to be afraid: it seems like the world is actively geared towards torturing him, specifically.
It starts with Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), a deeply anxious man living in a nameless city populated by drug-addled maniacs, serial killers and every other variety of urban nutcase. He lives in constant fear of those around him, is heavily medicated and is supposed to go to visit his mother soon. In the first of the film’s three hours, Aster makes it abundantly clear that everything that can go wrong will go wrong for Beau in the most anxiety-inducing way.
Beau is terrified of the people in his dilapidated neighbourhood - since most of them are extremely off-putting and bent on hurting him, specifically. There’s a desiccated corpse just laying on his street and his neighbours are all overly hostile. Anyone in Beau’s place would be a nervous, agoraphobic and people-fearing wreck, and the film never lets up this aggressive pressure.
Case in point: the usually careful Beau leaves his keys unattended in the front door for less than a minute as he’s leaving to see his mother. In that time span, the keys are stolen, causing him to miss his flight, have dozens of people take over his flat, and inadvertently causing his mother to die in a freak accident.
In essence, the whole film runs on this hyper-anxious, worst-case-scenario nightmare fuel. Beau, a sensitive and gentle character, lives in a world where the worst thing possible happens to him at every turn. For those who have known intense anxiety or who have gone through the worst possible scenario even once, Beau Is Afraid might prove a surreally relentless nightmare.
Panicking at the news of his mother's sudden and brutal death, Beau is then assaulted by further lunatics (one had been hiding in his ruined flat and attacks him in the bath while the other had been waiting for him naked in the street) before being hit by a car. He wakes up in the care of perfect suburban couple Roger and Grace, who seem strangely hesitant to let him leave again.
The driving narrative is Beau’s need to get to his mother’s home in time for her funeral - and meeting the strangest, most frightening people along the way. Aster certainly loves his weirdos just standing there menacingly (see: the naked cultists in Hereditary or the Swedish cultists in Midsommar).
Specifically, there’s a sense of overwhelming conspiracy at play in his films, above all in Beau Is Afraid. Beau is totally alienated from the logic of the world around him and the people he meets along the way are all subtly dangerous, uncanny and/or unnecessarily cruel. The world itself, operating on the same demented dream logic, tortures him at every turn.
The film very clearly has been Aster’s brain child for quite some time, with a 2011 short film of his titled Beau serving as a basis. As a horrifying result, the film is littered with nightmarish detail and a thorough - and outright jarring - surrealism. It’s also a genuinely funny black comedy and does something quite unique in eliciting laughs out of the worst thing that has ever happened to poor Beau.
Panic attack-inducing horror
The film, unrelenting in its awful, panic attack-inducing horror and methodical in every detail, runs for a total of three hours and seems designed to exhaust. Beau is torn apart and abused in diverse and depraved ways, with some genuinely terrifying sequences punctuating a non-stop horror show. The audience, sympathising with a protagonist trapped in a surreal nightmare, is similarly put through the oneiric wringer.
It’s almost difficult to recommend Beau Is Afraid even though it's a refreshing approach to an often tired genre. Aster, despite his finesse and eye for the supernatural and the visually intense, rather relies on atmosphere and anxious worldbuilding - in other words, rendering you just as debilitatingly anxious and afraid as his protagonist.
Clocking in at three overstuffed hours and seemingly dying to traumatise its audience, its pitch-black comedy and unique approach to horror nevertheless warrant a watch.
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