Ari Aster. Is he a horror filmmaker? Does he specialize in drama? We do know one thing. This burgeoning auteur has a flair for the dramatic. Between his work on Hereditary and Midsommar, he always leaves viewers with a lot to discuss. This week, his newest epic, Beau Is Afraid, finally hits theaters. Will he continue his well-received streak of kookiness? Or is Beau just bored? 

Kids, I don’t know how to tell you this; I don’t think I can sum up this movie. The general plot follows Beau (Joaquin Phoenix). He’s riddled with all kinds of anxiety. Life isn’t treating him great. So, his world is thrown for a loop when his luggage is stolen as he’s trying to leave for his annual trip to see his widowed mother (Patti LuPone). 

Joaquin Phoenix walks into a pastoral backdrop in Beau is Afraid.

Suddenly, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, plunging Beau into a journey the likes of which only Homer can appreciate. Anything beyond this could be a spoiler in this winding, meandering narrative. Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Parker Posey, Zoe Lister-Jones and Richard Kind co-star in the movie. Ari Aster directs Beau Is Afraid from his own script. 

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Beau Is Afraid is, if nothing else, a cinematic experience. As I write this review, I’m still stumped about how I feel about this apparently unreviewable picture. Truthfully, I could argue this movie is both the best and the worst movie of 2023 thus far. However, unlike many of the challengers in the “worst” category, I had a blast watching this one. 

A lot of pointed words are thrown around in relation to Aster’s work. Terror. Unease. Guilt. Anxiety. The narrative and the strangely quirky script build the film’s world through the lens of Beau’s anxiety. As I watched the movie, though, that’s as far as these descriptors went. Beau Is Afraid is packed with some strange and wacky tonal choices, which left me wondering: Was this intentional? Moments that should induce horror end up resulting in snickers. Is it supposed to be that funny? Beau Is Afraid zeroes in on a strange, decidedly unique crossroads of uneasy comedy. As you sit there chuckling in the darkened theater, it feels wrong to be laughing, yet you are. 

Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane and Joaquin Phoenix hold hands while sitting at the table in Beau Is Afraid.

That said, though, I enjoyed myself immensely for most of this movie’s epic runtime. I was often reduced to a slack-jawed sense of wonder, the likes of which I only experienced watching Plan 9 From Outer Space. And no, that isn’t a dig on either movie. 

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Beau Is Afraid lives in a weird and unapologetic world of its own. Many meld with Aster’s voice, but just as many don’t. He’s a complex writer, and this time out, his script shrouds the story in dense layers of metaphor and allegory viewed through the kaleidoscopic haze of gorgeous production design to keep things interesting. What is real? What’s rooted in Beau’s vivid imagination? As the ending credits roll, it is impossible to tell. This film isn’t about the story. It’s about the trip. 

All of this craziness, though, doesn’t detract from the fact that every moment of Beau Is Afraid is an acting masterclass. This extends to every layer of the cast, from Phoenix to dynamic stage talents like Patti LuPone and Nathan Lane. This is a stacked talent pool, and it’s fantastic to watch. 

Nathan Lane holds up barbecue tongs in Beau is Afraid.

The entire cast shines in the face of what must have been a complex shoot. This is all thanks to Aster’s direction, who crafts intense and unflinching camerawork. He constructs Beau Is Afraid with long, constantly moving shots. His is an introspective camera that leaves the actors nowhere to hide. It studies every inch of their face during agonizingly long, slow shots. The slightest slip in performance could ruin a moment. However, these actors, led by Joaquin Phoenix, meet the challenge head-on. Patti LuPone dominates the third act with terrifying ferocity, while Nathan Lane reminds us why he’s a treasure. Meanwhile, the always incredible Richard Kind steals the show in just a single scene. We need more Richard Kind. Lots. 

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Now to talk about the proverbial elephant in the movie theater. Beau Is Afraid is a bladder-busting beast. All three hours of it. Is the runtime earned? Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. Yes, there are fascinating highs, but like any epic, it sags. In fact, at this length, this behemoth of a movie is unrelenting and exhausting. This will not work for everyone. 

Ultimately, though, Beau Is Afraid just needs to be seen. The drama is a strange experience that I haven’t wrapped my head around even days later. Is it good or bad? Even at this point, I don’t think I know. There’s a lot to unpack, but I had a blast watching it despite all this. If you’re looking for a mind-bending challenge, add Beau Is Afraid to your list. 

Beau Is Afraid premieres in theaters nationwide on April 21, 2023.

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This interview was originally published on 4/21/23.

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Kimberly Pierce
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