Beau is Afraid
By: Adam Freed
In a time where so many are willing to kneel in awe of the soulless invention capabilities of artificial intelligence, there seems little hope for the future of creativity. A.I. has grown increasingly capable of recreating facsimiles of the human artistic mind, regenerating rather than birthing art, music, or prose. Pessimistic prophets foresee a world void of human creation. Yet there is reason for those who value the emotional expression of human existence to hold on to hope. A24 Studios and auteur director Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) are quick to remind the greatest programmers alive that no synthetic series of ones and zeros will ever harness the same grand passion and reflective capability of a mind and heart shaped by life itself.
Like the numerous famed artists, turned directors, who too found themselves emboldened to their greatest ambition in their third theatrical release, Aster’s newest film Beau is Afraid is not for the faint of heart. Like his famous living predecessors emboldened by early success, Aster adds his name to those who have used their third feature films as the height of their ambition. Spike Lee took his largest swing with Do the Right Thing (1989), David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and perhaps the most ambitious of all, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), all risked alienating a growing fanbase in the name of artistic vision. This is the impressive ground upon which Ari Aster stands with Beau is Afraid.
Beau is a three hour epic, far less horrific than Aster’s prior work, yet not without its moments of pure chaos. The director’s third feature is far more metacognitive and introspective despite its outwardly massive scale. The title character is played to stoic perfection by Joaquin Phoenix, as gifted an actor as there has ever been at turning nuance into an invitation to view his personal pain. Phoenix’s performance initially presents as a dim outer shell but as layers erode, it is clear that what originally appears as shell, is revealed to be shield. Beau and audience alike view his life through a prism of manic and debilitating guilt. The trauma is painfully real, and like the greatest artists, Ari Aster is holding the mirror in which it must be considered.
Inside everyone there lies far more questions than there are answers. What is the reliability of a childhood memory? How large a stake in the future should past trauma be allowed to occupy? Films that push boundaries force attentive audiences to ask questions, of themselves and of their experiences. Undoubtedly, there will be people who hate this film. Those most likely are the luckiest individuals who have never been asked to bear the burden of trauma or guilt. Love or loathe Beau is Afraid, audiences need to appreciate the aspiration behind creating a story of such immense creativity and emotional depth. Without filmmakers daring enough to attempt this level of art, how will humanity ever learn to decipher the human experience from its synthetic replicant?