One bit of oft-repeated advice, often attributed to Coco Chanel, could be applied to more than just the fashion realm: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” In other words, you should streamline before walking out the door looking goofy.
Or, if you’re widely popular horror filmmakers Ari Aster and Jordan Peele, before you subject audiences to your latest overindulgent movie, consider getting it together first. Otherwise, you’ll end up with something like the former’s latest, “Beau Is Afraid,” or the latter’s “Us,” gargantuan films with promising concepts that hurtle off the rails on their way to a conclusion.
This has now become a pattern for both otherwise skilled directors, whose impressive first features — 2018’s “Hereditary” and 2017’s “Get Out” — helped revive faith in mainstream horror. For a few solid years leading up to their openings, smaller films and those coming out of international markets had proved to be more consistently effective and resonant contributions to the genre. (Think “Raw,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and “Only Lovers Left Alive,” for instance.) Aster’s and Peele’s debuts helped to change that narrative.
But when you put a filmmaker whose work you’ve come to trust, particularly early in their career, on this type of pedestal, it gives them very little space to experiment or fail. Or, when they do mess up, the narrative built for them has become so secured that audiences sometimes don’t even react when it’s just not true anymore.
Are Aster and Peele one-trick ponies? Well, they’ve each directed only three features, so that remains to be seen. But it’s telling that the films made after their stunning debuts have ultimately been disastrous.
Aster’s grandiose sophomore effort, the folklore nightmare “Midsommar,” is confounding, especially coming from a director whose first feature was so humanly devastating and unsettling. Peele’s similarly ambitious second film, “Us,” never stuck the landing, opting for an increasingly frayed trajectory instead. His third film, “Nope,” also abandons sensical storytelling.
These later works feel like directors’ attempts to feed audiences they don’t quite understand, or the output of artists who realize they’ve reached a point where anything they create will be showered with praise. Or — and this is a big one — maybe these filmmakers really are just not as good as we initially thought.
Such theories are, admittedly, quite cynical. With “Hereditary” and “Get Out,” Aster and Peele have shown that they can deliver precise, impressive films. But their more recent efforts bear no semblance of that potential.
So, we should probably talk about “Beau Is Afraid” now. It’s familiar in that it starts out intriguing, great even, before spiraling into something bizarre and pointlessly bloated.
Joaquin Phoenix plays the title character, a mysteriously aged, nebulously ailed man living in an urban horror show: Corpses of seniors are left rotting in the middle of the street; a knife-wielding, naked man attacks people at random; and vagrants break into and vandalize Beau’s home. (The home, mind you, is a run-down, graffiti-laden establishment that could not have possibly passed any inspection in … ever.)
Aster builds this tension in such a satisfying way that you wish the film just stayed in this place. Who are these people? Where on earth does Beau live? Why does he live here? Who is he? Why is there no law and order? This must be why he’s so afraid — you know, like the title says.
The film is consistent with one (and only one) thing: Beau’s motivation to visit his mother, played by a malicious Patti LuPone. He’s on his way to catch a flight to her, but then the whole burglary thing happens. Oh, and he proceeds to get stabbed in the street, narrowly escaping with a breath in his body when a couple of good Samaritans (the brilliantly disarming Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane) scoop Beau up and bring him back to their sunny suburban home. That’s when some other, less easily identified, tension seethes beneath the surface.
This all makes for a deeply fulfilling watch. You vibe with it. You have questions about it, obviously, but you’re still into it because you want to know the answers.
It’s when you eventually stop caring about the answers that you realize the film has lost the plot entirely, yet is still rolling at full speed. This is right around the halfway mark in “Beau Is Afraid.” Beau reaches a point where he absolutely must leave the suburban hellscape, flees into the woods and — wait for it — straight into a forest-dwelling theater group.
From there, the movie spins off its axis. Aster begins to explore the protagonist’s inner turmoil around his strained relationship with his mother and his terminal solitude through the first of many extended cutaways. This one is animated, telling a ridiculously long what-if about Beau finding, then losing, his soul mate and their children.
We jump back to the makeshift “Masterpiece Theatre” in the woods for more sloppy exposition about Beau’s yearning for family, followed by a psychosexual reunion with his mom and the appearance of a giant penis and balls (*insert shrugging emoji here*).
Then, he steps onto a sinking boat — and that, reader, pretty much sums up what “Beau Is Afraid” becomes in its latter half. It’s an extravagant exercise in patience with no payoff. It feels in every way like a director just flailing around onscreen because he knows he can at this point in his career. The film dissolves into something that is neither thrilling nor thoughtful, but just tedious.
That’s not because inexplicable fears, mommy issues and loneliness are things audiences can’t appreciate; it’s just that, here, none of those are interesting or coherent enough for us to excitedly talk about the movie later with our friends. That would be a laborious, frustrating endeavor.
It’s a problem reminiscent of Peele’s efforts, particularly “Us.” Like Aster, Peele may have felt some pressure for his second film to match the success of his first, the masterful and exquisitely layered relationship horror “Get Out.”
“Us” starts out phenomenally in its first half. (Overall, the film runs just under two hours). Then, the home invasion-meets-doppelganger horror spirals so far off the deep end — with an arbitrary “Hands Across America” sequence, the bunny rabbits, and an abstruse confrontation between two Lupita Nyong’o characters — that it becomes an exasperating head-scratcher. Like “Beau Is Afraid,” it is another example of excessive storytelling with no foreseeable conclusion.
This is similar to — dare I say — the M. Night Shyamalan effect. Shyamalan, too, is unable to finish a thought in many of his films. It often seems like he can’t figure out a way to end the story, so he comes up with an entirely different idea that has little to do with the bulk of the plot and just says, “The end.”
With three features apiece, Aster and Peele boast far fewer offerings than their prolific predecessor Shyamalan, but the outlook for them is … not good. And that’s a shame, because for many horror newbies right now, these filmmakers are helping to define the genre.
Since their first movies, nothing they’ve done has reached the same heights. And yet, these three men been given opportunity after opportunity and one generous budget after another — “Beau Is Afraid” cost $35 million to make, while “Us” and Shyamalan’s “Knock at the Cabin” rang up to about $20 million each — to experiment ad nauseam.
Of course, artists should be allowed to try and fail, especially early in their careers, so this would be fine if more female horror filmmakers like Karyn Kusama or Ana Lily Amirpour could have the same lenience or budget. But they don’t.
So, those particularly interested in mainstream horror (or not curious about the higher-caliber international and independent fare) will just have to accept the work of these men dominating the genre right now, as tiresome and hedonistic as it has become.