Ari Aster is back after wowing everyone with Hereditary and Midsommar, giving us for his third feature a portrait of a chronically anxious man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, on a mission to get home to visit his mother (Patti LuPone).
Beau Is Afraid is an intimidatingly long psychodrama (clocking in at a cheek-numbing 179 minutes) which moves away from straight-up horror and instead uses dark comedy and well-executed horror techniques to deal with themes of trauma.
The ambitious tonal shifts work for the most part, but while it’s a joy to be surprised by the distinctness of Beau Is Afraid compared to Aster’s previous films, it has an unfinished feel to it. Granted, the detail-orientated approach to the filmmaking is commendable and there are those who will have a blast unpacking all the cinematic winks peppered throughout - as well as the meanings lurking behind the recurring water leitmotif. But the sad fact remains that it’s a wildly uneven and unwieldy ride that feels like a bargain bin homage to Charlie Kaufman, one which lacks the self-awareness and creative rewards one gets from a Kaufman joint.
As for Phoenix, a committed performer at every turn, he feels frustratingly one-note in his portrayal of the titular character, who seems to oscillate between two extremes: frightened bunny and total freak out. The same could be said about LuPone, playing his mother Mona, who is stuck portraying a one-dimensional overbearing matriarch with distressing psychosexual leanings towards her son.
The whole thing ends up falling flat and it got me thinking: Can we all collectively admit that far too much smoke has been blown up Aster’s backside and that he is not, as many have stated, the saviour of modern horror?
Nuclear take, I know, as Hereditary and Midsommar frequently pop up in many Best Horror Films Ever lists. But they just don’t belong, and I find myself squirming every time I see them ranked with the best of them. And as ambitious as Aster’s new Oedipal odyssey is, it only confirms that the emperor, talented though he may be, has no clothes.
Aster was proclaimed the new master of horror after Hereditary, and while it remains a decent watch, it’s a film of two distinctive halves – one which goes downhill at the halfway mark. The second and third acts just made me want to watch Ben Wheatley’s criminally underrated (and far superior) Kill List again. As for Midsommar, it remains a serviceable The Wicker Man update, a daytime nightmare that sees Florence Pugh give yet another perfect performance by elevating this contemporary break-up movie. But its spell quickly fades and you’re left with a folk horror that lumbers towards a depressingly predictable conclusion that lacks punch, leaving you with a strangely hollow beast that never hits the heights of its obvious influences.
And yet, the director has been talked about as a horror legend, a title which is not only premature but downright misleading. Aster has the knack for great casting – Toni Colette and Florence Pugh are flawless in Hereditary and Midsommar. And Joaquin Phoenix is another fine get in Beau Is Afraid. However, remove them and what have you got? Decent premises, robust executions (chiefly thanks to the terrific work of Polish cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski), but altogether obvious features that are frequently derivative of far superior films.
Yes, Aster can deliver unsettling films and the way he employs family tragedy to comment on grief in order to serve as invitations for terror is excellent; he may yet direct a film that deserves hyperbolic praise. For the time being however, he’s just getting started and hasn’t earned any horror master titles that have been thrown his way willy-nilly.
A recent question posed by FilmUpdates also caught my attention.
They asked their readership to pick between three filmmakers who burst onto the indie scene in the mid-2010s with critically acclaimed horror films: Robert Eggers (The VVitch), Jordan Peele (Get Out), and Ari Aster (Hereditary).
The filmography of all three directors currently stands at three features:
Robert Eggers: The VVitch (2015), The Lighthouse (2019), The Northman (2022).
Jordan Peele: Get Out (2017), Us (2019), Nope (2022).
Ari Aster: Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019), Beau Is Afraid (2023).
All three are skilled directors with bags of potential, but when comparing them on the basis that they emerged at roughly the same time (and are all on their third films), there’s no question about it: Jordan Peele and Robert Eggers are leagues ahead of the singularly overrated Aster.
Peele brings a Twilight Zone sensitivity to his scripts and films, which tickles me no end. Get Out saw the director deftly weave tense thrills and dark comedy into an unnerving twist on _Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner_-meets-The Stepford Wives. Every detail and subtext had a payoff, and his potent satire / critique of post-Obama racial attitudes was one hell of a rounded and satisfying calling card.
His second film, Us, avoided the much-dreaded sophomore slump but didn’t reach the same allegorical heights set by its predecessor. Nor did it convincingly embrace the themes of personal repression the script tantalisingly flirted with. It teased out a commentary on the trauma of America’s collective past – specifically that of a post-Reagan identity fracture, seen through a recurring reference to the 1986 Hands Across America campaign – but the use of this motif is brought to a conclusion that felt too predictable to properly provoke. The mythology regarding “the Tethered” - the awakened Freudian ids come to confront their egos in a manner that feels reminiscent of H.G. Wells’ underground dwellers, the Morlocks, who rise to bother the surface dwellers who live in a zombie-like state of repressed ignorance – felt muddled. However, as frustrating as Us was, it rewards repeat viewings.
Then there’s last year’s Nope, a blockbuster unlike any other, which saw Peele tip his hat to ‘50s sci-fi whilst breaking new ground. The way the director addressed the way we imagine the spectacle of alien life beyond the common visual shorthand was thrilling. I’ve waxed lyrical enough about this film, so I’ll just invite you to read my thoughts on the art of audacious on-screen aliens. Safe to say that Nope is for me Peele at the summit of his craft, especially when he interrogates Hollywood’s exploitative nature, pays tribute to the forgotten voices of the film industry, and explores how the human race treats the figure of the Other.
Three for three then.
As for Robert Eggers, I have nothing but admiration for his debut The VVitch. Subtitled 'A New England Folktale', the 2015 film was a chilling study of the devils that lurk within of all of us. The VVitch is an atmospheric, sphincter-clenching chiller also rooted in family dynamics which firmly planted Eggers’ pitchfork in the intelligent modern horror landscape. The way in which his slow burning gem explored the figure of the witch beyond cheesy Halloween decorations or the Wicked Witch of the West as portrayed by Margaret Hamilton was brilliant and understood, from the shadows of the past linked to witch hunts in Europe and the Salem witch trials in the US, how and why that figure has become so important in popular culture.
His second effort, The Lighthouse, proved it was no fluke. Another period piece, the two-hander set on a remote New England island in the late 19th century, was a gothic psychodrama that benefitted in no small way from Jarin Blaschke’s moody monochrome cinematography - as well as an unsettlingly intrusive score. Eggers’ hypnotic maritime fever dream felt like an expressionist threesome featuring Bella Tarr, F.W. Murnau and HP Lovecraft, with a smattering of surreal humour added for good measure; and while it hasn’t been a film I’ve personally revisited, its levels of phantasmagoria left me with a mythology-riffing takedown of the masculine ego that was something to be celebrated.
The Northman was less impressive, even if the visuals in Eggers’ mediaeval Viking drama - with more than a hint of Hamlet – did wow. It felt less creative than his previous films and showed the director desperately striving to make the ultimate and authentic Viking epic. He succeeded in this, but at the cost of boring the audience out of their trees throughout the first half (by Odin’s beard, move things along before I start my own private massacre) and sadly missing the landing with a very obvious last act. Themes of escaping one’s fate and the trippy ergot-poisoning sequences were excellent, but again harked back to another fantastic Ben Wheatley film – A Field in England – which tackled this in a far creepier and memorable way.
(Ben Wheatley's great, isn't he?)
So, two out of three for Eggers, which ain’t half bad.
Which brings me to the logical conclusion that Jordan Peele has the most tricks up his sleeve, within the context of this limited threesome. Eggers is a close second, standing as a formidable technical filmmaker and storyteller who has ambition to spare. As for Aster, it’s one out of three, if you cobble together the two first halves of Hereditary and Midsommar, whilst still applauding the risk taking of Beau Is Afraid. Still, he remains a one trick pony who serves as an important reminder that we should all take a deep breath before tossing around the word ‘masterpiece’ or the title ‘saviour of modern horror’ as if they were spareable confetti.
Oh, and widening the scope a little to conclude on a final note of sanity, let’s take the time to consider that while conversations tend to revolve around male filmmakers, the last decade has seen some of the most memorable horror films come from new and exciting female voices.
These filmmakers bend the rules and broaden the scope of the genre in ways their male counterparts can only dream of.
If you’re looking to quench your bloodlust or to expand your horizons to better appreciate how – within the same timeframe as Peele, Eggers and Aster – certain filmmakers have taken the time to blow the three gentlemen out the water, look no further than Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, The Nightingale), Julia Ducournau (Raw, Titane), Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), Lucile Hadžihalilović (Evolution, Earwig), Agnieszka Smoczyńska (The Lure), Coralie Fargeat (Revenge), Issa López (Tigers Are Not Afraid), Anna Biller (The Love Witch), Veronika Franz (Goodnight Mommy, The Lodge), Madeleine Sims-Fewer (Violation), Rose Glass (Saint Maud), Natalie Erika James (Relic), Prano Bailey-Bond (Censor), Hanna Bergholm (Hatching), or Carlota Martínez-Pereda (Piggy).
A sizeable list, I know, but these names are the tip of the iceberg. Comparing and contrasting the debut films on this list... Now that would be a wonderful headache, one which would take far much more time and sleepless nights.
With that in mind, stay tuned to Euronews Culture, where we’ll be exploring this exciting new wave of female directors and diving into why these voices may be truly deserving of the titles ‘masters / mistresses of modern horror’.