Sometimes, it’s tough being really skilled at one thing in particular. Having flown out the blocks with two supremely good, bonafide hit horror films (Hereditary in 2018, Midsommar in 2019), writer and director Ari Aster had to make a departure to avoid being pigeon-holed as a genre specialist. Which means audiences will now be flummoxed by Beau Is Afraid, his ‘difficult second album’: an uncategorisable odyssey of sub-Freudian nightmares that goes hard on suffering but soft on narrative intrigue.
Clutching his first vacuum-wrapped Blu-ray off the shelf in the hallowed ground of Criterion’s Closet Picks library, Ari Aster holds 1966’s Closely Watched Trains up for the camera, and announces: “This and Beau have in common that they are about a man who really needs to come.” Would it were so simple. This three-hour feature grinds and teases for so long, takes so many unwarranted detours, the audience is just as likely to bemoan the lack of a satisfying finale.
Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is neurotic. Perhaps that was an alternate title during the early writing stages. We first meet him shuffling into his therapist’s office, a regular hangdog schlemiel, worrying about whether his mouth wash will give him stomach cancer. Then he returns to his shithole apartment in a comically-exaggerated slum neighbourhood, where a stroke of bad luck sees him miss his flight for a reunion with his mother. It’s the first of many unfortunate incidents that Beau will have to endure as he tries to fulfil his familial obligations and complete the trip. But the first fuck-up is the funniest, and the joke begins to wear thin.
Everything that is enjoyable about this drawn-out adventure is apparent in its first half-hour, when we witness Beau floundering around his brown-stained apartment complex, trying to dodge the drug-addled street people who lurk outside his door. The art department and set decoration teams excel themselves with a hyper-real world of depravity and skin-crawling weirdness. Indeed, the art direction in general is superb and the look of the film is hard to fault for all its lurid, colourful oddity.
The trouble is, bar a few solid laughs along the way courtesy of its morbidly dark sense of humour, the writing comes across as overly self-indulgent. Its ambition and moments of surrealistic delight bring to mind the Nureyev-of-neuroticism himself, Charlie Kaufman – Synecdoche, New York in particular – but it’s difficult not to feel that there’s a better film lurking within that might have been rescued by a bit more red ink and a more ruthless re-think in the cutting room.
Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom