In his notes, the iconic French director Robert Bresson tried to distill exactly what it was that made a good movie — or maybe more exactly, what it means for a movie to be good.
“The greater the success,” he wrote, “the closer it verges upon failure.”
A few decades later, American author Robert Warshow would lay out his approach to film criticism in contrast to how many thought it should be done. Instead of watching a movie as a piece of art to be deciphered and evaluated as a reflection of society, it was all about the “immediate experience.” Forget how much it impressed you; how much did you actually enjoy watching?
“I have seen a great many very bad movies, and I know when a movie is bad, but I have rarely been bored at the movies,” he explained in the prelude to his book The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture.
“And when I have been bored, it has usually been at a ‘good’ movie.”
This may be a long-winded introduction, but if anything calls for that, it is the equally long-winded Beau Is Afraid. Because while it is an impressive work from a bona fide auteur, an undeniable achievement of cinema with obvious depth and meaning, and a work of art that has blown away some of the smartest people in the industry, I scrawled a pithy note of my own while watching it.
“Is this movie. Ever going to end?“
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Trying to evaluate Beau Is Afraid, the new sort-of comedy from the horror mastermind behind Midsommar and Hereditary, is an exercise in walking that line. Because it is incredibly difficult to call anything as bravely original and weird as this movie a failure and back it up, but the experience of watching Beau is just flat-out not fun.
The unrelentingly dour film shows off an interpretation of the human experience more angry, pessimistic, dirty and cruel than 1993’s Falling Down — about a two-hour killing spree vitriolic enough it might have itself inspired a murderer — while somehow expecting you to laugh. The story asks you to identify with its lead’s emotional journey, while the plot around him is both as unforgiving and gross as El Topo — the 1970s acid-Western that was partially marketed by its director boasting about sexual assault in a completely misguided publicity stunt.
To be fair, both of those films garnered considerable critical accolades, and saying Beau Is Afraid has any sort of ill intentions in line with those examples would be wholly untrue. But despite the fact that director Ari Aster likely achieved exactly what he was going for in crafting this complex film, the end result is a movie that feels like it actively hates you — while its overlong three-hour runtime finds a way to overpower the disgusting visuals and still manage to bore you.
An Oedipal nightmare
In terms of plot, Beau Is Afraid follows Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), the eponymous man-child living under the shadow of his enormously successful mother, Mona (Pattie LuPone). After missing a flight to visit her, he starts on a violent, misguided (and eventually completely undercut) hero’s journey to her home, and ultimately to overcome his feelings of inadequacy beneath her wing.
At its heart, it’s an incisive look at the weird wacky world of Oedipus complexes — like in Victoria Redel’s Loverboy, it examines how an overdriven maternal instinct can turn the “boy-mom” personality into a mess of neuroses, purposefully ingrained in order to keep a child dependent and close. It also very successfully exposes another trope: the “nice guy” who, instead of owning up to any of his own failings, weaponizes and hides behind incompetence to avoid making choices, or take any responsibility for anything at all
But beyond the supposed honesty of the messages Aster is working through, the thing still has to function as entertainment for an audience. And it is good, in the sense that you’d be an idiot to suggest Aster doesn’t know what he’s doing; this is a clear evolution from what he began to develop in his prior two outings. And his artistic vision is evident: one extended sequence in the middle, where Beau journeys into a bohemian parable about an old man and a flood is surprisingly frank and beautiful.
But on the whole, Beau Is Afraid is also a tiresome and aggressive movie that actively tries to get you to dislike it. As Aster said he has no more genre-flicks in him past Midsommar, Beau instead borrows from the “horror” of horror without actually scaring, so the result is just the sickly feeling of something distasteful that refuses to leave.
For example, the Desperate Living-esque neighbourhood where Beau lives (filled with so many violent criminals living outside he’s forced to literally sprint past a man gouging out another man’s eyes) is cynical almost to the point of comedy — instead, it’s just depressing. The emotionally vacant family he finds on his travels is again a John Waters-style lampoon of the American nuclear family, with Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane doing their best to unsettle you as just a sampling of the characters with absolutely nothing redeeming for an audience to latch onto.
As funny as a dog fight
As a comedy, its barbed jokes are about as funny as a dog fight, while somehow twice as mean-spirited. Its comedy is pulled straight from that distinct 90s and early 2000s era of cartoons like Ren & Stimpy, The Ripping Friends and Courage the Cowardly Dog, when the overarching idea of humour seemed to be pointing out that everything is ugly, everyone is terrible and unsettling visuals are … unsettling.
It’s a social satire told in the form of a kaleidoscopic, Kafkaesque nightmare that should have ended hours before it did. Its value lies in a certain group of people being able to point at the dysfunctional mother-son relationship and say “it’s funny because it’s true!” Its bleak messages will be funny to fans of the creepy subversions of YouTube’s MeatCanyon, though Beau never pushes far enough to match its horror.
It’s the kind of movie that presents itself as a challenge: everything about it is designed to put you off, to push you away from enjoyment. If you succeed in forcing yourself to adapt to it, if the audience wins out against their own impulses and wrestles their brain into acceptance, then they win — if they dislike it, then they simply haven’t worked hard enough. And looking back to something like Ian McEwan’s Solar, failing to like mean art is often interpreted as a “you” problem.
All that said, that description might work for you. A complete lack of reasons to root for any of its characters, a nascent moral of self-assurance intentionally and inexplicably scuttled right at the end, and nearly 180-minutes of head-scratching might be as exciting to you as it is to so many critics.
But subjectively, honestly, Beau did not work. Because there’s nothing wrong with taking a sad or morose look at the human experience — the relentlessly depressing The Painted Bird, Skinamarink and It’s Such a Beautiful Day are some of my favourite things on film. But there’s a difference between sad movies and mean ones, and Beau Is Afraid is just mean.