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The Films of Ari Aster

One of the most arresting filmmakers to enter the scene in the last 5 years, Ari Aster is out to prove he's capable of much more than horror with his latest film, "Beau is Afraid". Does he succeed? Let's look back at his first two films for some perspective before diving into his latest effort.

Hereditary (2018)

One of the best & most disturbing family drama/horror films I've ever seen, HEREDITARY is well worth seeking out in theatres.

We meet Annie as the film opens, preparing for her mother's funeral. Far from the standard eulogy, Annie shares her shock at seeing so many strangers and describes her mother as a secretive, flawed woman. You get the feeling that Mom will NOT be missed.

Annie is played by Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense, Little Miss Sunshine) in her best screen performance, seething with pain just below the surface that's begging to be unleashed. When she does, it makes you cower.

Annie's husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is a soft spoken man, tasked with holding the family together. Their son Peter (perfectly played by Alex Wolff (Jumanji, Patriots Day) is a stoner, existing in the house as quietly as possible.

Rounding out the family is their daughter Charlie, hauntingly played by screen newcomer Milly Shapiro, who starred on Broadway as the original "Matilda" in that long running musical.

She is a LONG way from Broadway show tunes here. Her Charlie is a quiet, disturbing girl who often expresses herself with a loud "cluck" of her tongue, when she's not cutting the heads of off kamikaze crows.

There is something off about the family.

Writer/Director Ari Aster masterfully immerses you in their world almost immediately.

As the camera weaves through the miniature models that artist Annie is creating for an upcoming gallery show, the mini rooms unveil disturbing glimpses into their normal.

When a tragedy strikes the family, Annie begins a tailspin into anger, grief and despair that drives her into some very bad choices.

There are seances, terrifying otherworldly encounters and a creeping dread that makes your skin crawl.

Annie's unhinged, frank bitterness and depression is thrown totally off the rails by the family tragedy, which I suspected was one thing and shocked when it took another path.

With about twenty minutes to go in the film, Aster stages a scene in Peter's bedroom so brilliantly that something horrifying is revealed to you with incredible patience. It's there for you to see, but you won't for the first thirty seconds. When I saw it, it freaked me out in all the right scary movie ways, and STILL haunts me every night I go to sleep since.

The music score by Colin Stetson, his first for a feature film, is a terrifying element throughout, making your skin crawl well before anything visually scares you.

This isn't a cheap horror film with jump scares that will make you startle and laugh. HEREDITARY is an "Exorcist" like delve into a family facing powers far beyond their understanding. At least in "The Exorcist", Fathers Merrin & Karras arrived at some point to help that family.

Part of HEREDITARY's power is that you slowly become aware that no one is coming to help this twisted and tortured bunch.

Unfortunately, the final five or six minutes of the film almost destroy all the artistry before them with a too literal explanation of the events. It's disappointing and sad.

Like that special edition of "Close Encounters" that ruined the magic by actually taking Roy Neary inside the mothership, we should NEVER have seen what happens after Peter ascends into the treehouse. Alas.....

Ignore the final scene and enjoy the horror masterpiece that will wrap its darkness around you for the first 115 minutes of its running time.

HEREDITARY is scary as hell and gets an A+.

Midsommar (2019)

Ari Aster's debut film last year, "Hereditary" was one of my favorites of 2018, except for its last 3 or 4 minutes, when Aster decided to explain everything that happened with a dopey wrap up.

So here we are this summer with the much anticipated (for me) MIDSOMMAR, again written and directed by Aster.

And after seeing it...he's consistent.

The first 75 minutes or so are nearly flawless.

We meet vulnerable college student Dani, played to perfection by Florence Pugh (Fighting with my Family).

She is clinging to a flawed relationship with her boyfriend Christian, who she worries she buries in her personal drama.

When a horrific family tragedy (incredibly well staged by Aster) strikes, Dani and Christian are bonded again by her grief.

To lift the darkness, Dani decides to join Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends on a trip to Sweden to their friend Pelle's homeland. Pelle (Vilheml Blomgren) grew up in a peaceful hippy cult that's all flowers and sunshine.

Josh (William Jackson Harper) is the studious friend, writing his thesis about the cult.

Will Poulter (We're The Millers) provides what comic relief exists as Mark, the horny friend that wants Christian to move on from Dani's drama to someone, ANYONE easier.

The group flies to Stockholm and then begins a 4 hour drive to the rural location of the gathering and the madness begins.

No more plot points from me moving forward.

Aster frames some sequences that convince me he's one of our best young directors. The aftermath of the family tragedy is incredibly well structured.

A simple car ride after landing in Sweden becomes a mind-bending, upside down road that plays with your head. And that's before the drug use starts.

There is lots of casual drug use that escalates into madness territory. Flowers and trees breathe, consciousness ripples. It's undoubtedly visually arresting.

When they first arrive on the commune site, I couldn't take my eyes off the roof lines of the buildings. Something is very wrong here....

The main titles come far into the film, after what proves to be nearly the last nighttime scene of the film. The unending sun puts the escalating violence under bright lights. Aster doesn't do jump scares, but he loves leaping forward into the next scene making you feel like you've missed something key. I loved the structure.

With about 45 minutes to go, Aster betrays the fact he's not nearly as good a writer as he is a director, piling on ever escalating irrational behavior, nudity of every variety, graphic sexual content and filleted victims that Hannibal Lecter would be proud to claim as his own.

With one hell of a creepy music score by The Haxan Cloak and stunning photography "Hereditary" veteran Pawel Pogorzelski, the film is beautiful to look at, even when it's got unrelentingly ugly things to show you, repeatedly and up close.

At one point, Christian refuses a drugged tea, saying he's afraid of having a bad trip.

For me, the last 45 minutes of the film are exactly that after a fantastic, albeit morbidly depressing opening act.


I saw this in a theatre with 8 other people. 2 left a half hour in, 3 more an hour in. And they hadn't even got to the disturbing parts yet.

(SPOILER ALERT:Aster said in an interview that he sees the final shot of Dani as a funny payoff that will likely make audiences cheer at her revenge against Christian. Yeah...I dont know what movie he thought he made, but that final expression on her face was anything but funny. It made me think she's completely lost her mind along with the rest of these yahoos.)

Beau is Afraid (2023)

What's happened to Ari Aster?

After his first film, "Hereditary", I was ready to call him a new filmmaker savant. Even though the last 5 minutes of that film was a huge let down, everything that proceeded it was genius.

His second film, "Midsommar" fell off the rails much earlier for me, spiraling into disappointment.

His new, third film, BEAU IS AFRAID is the most self-indulgent, over-stuffed, unduly long film I've seen in a long time.

And for perspective, I just saw "Babylon".

It starts off promisingly.

We witness Beau's birth from his viewpoint in the opening scene and the sound design is intrusively cool. It's an eyebrow raiser.

Then we immediately move forward to the middle-aged, paunchy Beau in the person of Joaquin Phoenix. As you'd expect, he's perfectly cast. Beau has arrived at his psychiatrist's office, anxious to share again that he's leaving today to see his Mother. His doctor, calmly played by Stephen McKinley Henderson (Lady Bird, Lincoln) lets Beau do most of the talking. Beau is a spiraling knot of anxiety, wrapped in zero confidence and the innate inability to make a decision.

After a prescription for a new drug that should never EVER be taken without water (Gremlins came to mind) Beau is off to his apartment, located at the corner of Hell and Terror Central.

A naked crazy man runs around the street stabbing people, a young man dances 24 hours a day in front of a bodega, rotting corpses litter the street. Every square inch of the lobby is covered with violent, profane and sexual graffiti. Beau runs full speed toward the lobby door, fighting for his life.

At this point, Aster had my attention. Where the hell is this place? What time period am I watching? Is there NO law and order? Is this an esoteric entry in "The Purge"?

Beau's apartment building has signs everywhere warning that a deadly brown recluse spider is loose in the building. A neighbor slips notes under Beau's door every hour telling him to TURN DOWN HIS MUSIC!!! but he's not playing any.

He sleeps through his alarm and has to call his Mother to tell her he's running late.

The conversation between them is long, heavy with scary silences and betrays a more complicated relationship than Norman Bates had with his Mommy.

Will Beau make his plane? He takes a pill and realizes he has no water and as he runs to the bodega, a walking dead-like mob immediately takes over his apartment.

After the craziest bath scene in modern film history (bath's seem to be a running fear/motif throughout for Aster) and a call home in which he's told his Mother's head has been crushed by a falling chandelier, Beau runs naked into the street where he's stabbed by the other naked dude and hit by a couple who nearly run him over with their van.

The film goes dark and we move onto the next chapter (35 minutes into the film's three hour running time) where we meet cheery suburban couple Roger and Grace, played to perfection by Nathan Lane (The Birdcage) and Amy Ryan (The Office). They're funny, treating Beau like an adopted kid while he mends "Misery" style in the bedroom of their pissed off teenage daughter (the excellent Kylie Rogers from "Yellowstone"). Hulking in the shadows is Jeeves, a massive and imbalanced fellow soldier to the couple's son. Their son died in combat and a shrine to him fills the living room.

Happy suburbia peels back to reveal something much more sinister at play.

Beau just wants to get to his Mother's funeral. He's managed to let her down one more time in her death.

Soon Beau is running through the surrounding woods to escape yet another disaster. Screen to black and on to another chapter.

He almost immediately falls in with a theatre troupe that lives in the woods. Hailey Squires plays Penelope, a kind, soft spoken and very pregnant young woman who introduces Beau to the theatre commune.

At this point, the film grinds to a crawl, with Penelope narrating an incredibly long passage about Beau's life to date, replete with animated characters, a soft music score and enough detail to put anyone to sleep. The only other person in the theatre with me started snoring loudly halfway through this interminable passage. Who could blame him. It's nonsensical and almost intentionally boring.

My mind started wandering at this point. What am I watching? Is Aster basically just vomiting his internal life monologue on his relationship with his mother, social expectations, wealth, personal responsibility and sex against the page to see what sticks?

Answers confound. I looked at my watch and realized I was only 90 minutes into the 180 minute running time. Is this a movie or an endurance test?

In the middle of a play by the forest thespians, Beau has a family reunion with his children, even though he's never had sex in his life. He's convinced that he'll die if he gets laid. Something to do with often mentioned and sometimes barely glimpsed giant testicles.

I think Aster had huge balls to ask for $35 million to make this movie, but I digress...

Soon there's a lot of gunfire, as if a much more interesting film suddenly invaded the forest like that pirate ship in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life".

Screen goes black and now Beau is finally in a car, getting close to the palatial home of his successful Mother, Mona.

He arrives just as "Steve's Shivas" is taking down all the chairs and food from her service. The home is empty except for an open casket proudly showing off the headless corpse of his Mom.

Beau sits around in the dark, empty house until the unrequited love of his life arrives. Parker Posey is excellent as Elaine, who we last saw in flashbacks from an ill fated cruise.

What happens next and for the last 40 minutes of the film is really inexplicable.

It features the terrific stage actress Patti Lupone in an Oscar worthy performance as Beau's Mother. She's a force. Attic's are climbed into. A giant, Jabba the Hut-like 10 foot tall penis creature manages to snarl and scream, and people die.

But who's dead and who's alive? WTF....

Beau escapes in a rickety motor boat to some sort of gladiator arena for a bizarre judgement trial on his life. Aster made the choice to have the motor boat's outboard engine smoke, sputter and backfire for the entire length of the final scene. Like the rest of the details on Beau's misbegotten quest to nowhere, the motor is a grating and intentional annoyance.

Aster has called his film a '3-hour nightmare comedy".

I do remember laughing about 4 times at the absurdity of Beau and his situation, but this is by no definition a comedy. Aster's on point about the nightmare.

This falls into my category of films that I survived. I didnt watch them.

Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" is an incredibly well made film, but I never want to see it again. I walked out of the theatre feeling like I'd been beaten.

Adam Sandler's terrific drama "Uncut Gems" is a great movie and I felt like I survived the movie, I didn't simply see it. No desire to watch it again.

They should sell t-shirts in the lobby for this that say I SURVIVED BEAU IS AFRAID.

I don't think they'll need to print very many.

It's well acted and beautifully shot as an absurdist nightmare. Some of the core ideas are fascinating. Phoenix is harrowing but one note. Lupone, Lane and Ryan are terrific. The music score by Bobby Krlic is interesting, with haunts of Bernard Herrmann intact.

There's a moment just after the literal climax of Phoenix and Posey's last scene together when I felt for the first time that Beau could feel happiness. It was an interesting moment because I found myself really hoping that he could. Beau's fear is relentless and at some point you just want him to snap out of it and experience some other emotion.

Aster took my hope and beat it death mercilessly and then kept beating it long after it had expired.

Like Damien Chazelle's third film "Babylon", BEAU IS AFRAID is an undisciplined mess from a great filmmaker that I'm just starting to question. Is he as good as I thought he was? I'm fascinated to find out and see what he does next, but I hope he leaves more of his therapy sessions out of the final cut. Along with about an hour of pregnant, self-important pauses and tedious fable building.

BEAU gets a D.

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