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Joaquin Phoenix shines where ‘Beau Is Afraid’ fails

Ari Aster has to be one of the most interesting directors in modern day cinema. On one hand he makes a film nearly impossible to decipher in ‘Hereditary’ but on the other hand he can make a work of art like ‘Midsumma’. With that in mind many might find themselves approaching his latest film – ‘Beau Is Afraid’ – with nervous excitement.

By David Griffiths

Saturday 13 May 2023, 11:00AM

Joaquin Phoenix in Beau Is Afraid (2023). Image: IMDb

Joaquin Phoenix in Beau Is Afraid (2023). Image: IMDb

That is perhaps the best way to approach this film because it is a film that ends up revealing both the good and bad sides to Aster’s filmmaking abilities. This feels like a film of two halves – the first being creative and captivating and the second so dull and obscure that there will be some walkouts and catch-up sleep involved for the average cinema goer.

Aster’s new creation centres around the anxiety-ridden Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix – Her). Beau lives in constant fear of his environment but decides that he has enough courage to go and visit his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone – Witness), a successful businesswoman who lost faith in Beau years earlier.

Of course, Beau’s trip doesn’t go to plan with his fear soon overriding his intentions, but his life suddenly takes another turn when he finds himself trapped with an overbearing couple after he is run over by Grace (Amy Ryan – Gone Baby Gone) and is treated by her surgeon husband, Roger (Nathan Lane – The Lion King).

As the couple try to ‘adopt’ Beau, their daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers – Yellowstone) decides that she is going to do whatever it takes to make Beau’s life a misery. Meanwhile Beau is concerned about his welfare and just wants to escape to continue his journey to see his mother.

There have been few films made in cinema history that could be so easy to like and hate at the same time. The first half of the film is pure genius and nobody has captured what the world looks like to someone who is suffering anxiety the way Aster has. This first half is fresh and totally captivating. During this period of the film there is also a plethora of black comedy that hits the mark, guaranteeing laughter throughout the audience. 

But then comes the second half of the film. Here Aster decides to push the envelope and the film falls away… badly. First of all, there is an animated sequence that could have worked except for the fact that it lasts way too long, and then from there everything just falls into a boring heap. It feels like once Aster brought in the animated element, he then wanted to see how weird he could take this film. As it drags along many audience members will find themselves praying for the end credits… but first they will have to endure a totally absurd finale that is an insult to the genius of the start of the film.

Even fans of experimental cinema will struggle with this film – and that should serve as a warning for the regular cinema goer. Many will try to compare Beau Is Afraid to the brilliant Triangle of Sadness, but while the absurdist parts of that film remain within the audience’s imagination Beau Is Afraid does not – it turns into a complete, nonsensical mess.

The only thing that remains solid throughout Beau Is Afraid is the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. As usual he is brilliant and once again delivers no matter how absurd the scene is that he must act out.

Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan also deliver creative performances. Their scenes alongside Phoenix are amazing and almost seem so intimate to the audience that you can easily believe that you are watching theatre instead of cinema. Parker Posey and Patti LuPone are also brilliant later on in the film, and it is just a shame that their screen time comes once the film has overstayed its welcome.

Had Beau Is Afraid continued with the brilliant writing and creative environment that it started with then it would be a shoo-in for major award success, but as it is Ari Aster tries to be too artistic with the film and that ends up detracting from the story at hand.

Somewhere along the line Aster went from making a brilliant film about what it is like to suffer from anxiety to making a film that is so absurd that it loses the concentration of its audience. You have to feel for Joaquin Phoenix because he has put in one of the performances of the year in a film that sadly can only be described as a dud. 

Beau Is Afraid opens in Phuket on May 25. It has yet to be rated.

2/5 Stars

David Griffiths has been working as a film and music reviewer for over 20 years. That time has seen him work in radio, television and in print. You can follow him at

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