Beau Is Afraid


Cineworld, Edinburgh

Beau would appear to have every reason to be afraid.

When we first encounter Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), he’s living in a run-down flat in the heart of an American city that appears to have been set-dressed by Hieronymus Bosch. There are rotting bodies lying in the street, vicious fights are breaking out on every corner and he can’t even visit the convenience store without being pursued by a naked man who wants to stab him. His ever-smiling therapist (Stephen McKinley) tells him that it’s all the result of anxiety and makes sure he’s topped up with as many unpronounceable drugs as he can swallow – but he must be sure to take them with WATER!

A long-planned and somewhat overdue visit to his domineering mother, Mona (Patti Lupon), is the catalyst for a paranoiac sequence of unforeseen events, that put Beau into the hands of seemingly friendly couple, Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane). But once ensconced in their home in the country, he soon realises that everything there is not as cosy as it seems. Why does the couple’s teenage daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers), appear to hate him? And what’s the story with Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), the deranged army veteran who lives in a caravan in the garden? Why does he look at Beau in that sullen, threatening manner? The entire film plays like an endlessly protracted nightmare from which its lead character cannot awaken and though Beau still strives to make that all-important visit to his Mom, everything he does is destined to go horribly, catastrophically wrong…

Ari Aster is an interesting director, who excels at amping up an audience’s anxiety levels and, in the process, creating genuinely terrifying scenarios – but I felt his two previous features, Hereditary and Midsommar, both careered out of control in their final stretches and Beau Is Afraid suffers from the same complaint. While there are many memorable scenes here and a degree of invention that puts Aster amongst the forefront of contemporary filmmakers (check out the lengthy sequence where Beau wanders through a series of gorgeous animated landscapes), there’s still the conviction that he’s not quite as in control of his own storytelling as he needs to be.

With a bladder-straining running time of nearly three hours, the film’s conclusion feels needlessly protracted and there are some sections here – particularly a lengthy oedipal confrontation with his mother – that could probably have been edited out to make a tighter, more coherent movie.

Make no mistake, this is still a recommendation, because much of what’s on display here is absolutely dazzling. But you really can have too much of a good thing.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Hole In the Ground


The myth of the changeling goes back to the earliest times and it’s around that conceit that writer/director Lee Cronin has based this effective, low-budget horror movie, which sees young mother, Sara (Seána Kerslake), recently separated from an apparently abusive spouse, attempting to settle into a new home with her young son, Chris (James Quinn Markey). The fact that the house in question is located in the wilds of Ireland, uncomfortably close to a vast and ancient forest, guarantees that viewers’ nerves are on edge from the vertiginous credit sequence onwards, an effect that’s cleverly accentuated by Stephen McKeon’s ominous score.

Sara and Chris soon encounter one of the neighbours, the seemingly mentally disturbed Noreen (Kati Utennan), who tells everyone that her young son was strangely transformed into somebody entirely different, shortly before he was killed in a mysterious ‘car accident.’ When Chris, after an argument with his mother, runs off into the forest, Sara pursues him and discovers the huge sinkhole of the title, an impressive creation that seems to serve as a metaphor for  ensuing events, as Sara’s realties begin to subside inexorably beneath her. Soon, Chris is exhibiting uncharacteristic behaviour… and Sara begins to come around to the idea that Nora’s ramblings might not be quite as crazy as they sound.

Cronin’s approach to the story is all the more powerful because he steadfastly refuses to fill in too many details. We never learn why Sara has been abandoned by her partner, nor what caused that mysterious scar on her forehead. Indeed, at times we begin to suspect that Chris’s changes might just be a product of Sarah’s own imagination. But the steadily mounting atmosphere of clinging dread is expertly handled and there are some knockout scenes along the way. A sequence where Sarah views her son’s bizarre nighttime antics from a gap under his bedroom door is particularly terrifying and actually has me holding my breath as it plays out. Kerslake is terrific in the lead role and young Quinn Markey somehow manages to switch effortlessly from angelic to demonic and back again, all in a heartbeat.

There’s a tendency, of course, for tense fright movies like this one to go completely off the rails in the final furlong – Hereditary, I’m looking at you – but, while the final confrontation here lacks the terror of earlier stretches and is perhaps a little too reminiscent of The Descent, it holds up pretty well if you’re prepared to turn a blind eye to a few loose ends. Furthermore, I love the slippery coda which amply demonstrates that Sara’s ordeal has had a lasting effect on her, one from which she may never escape.

This confident – and at times surprisingly original film – is the director’s feature-length debut. It will be fascinating to see where he goes next.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney



The advance buzz about this film has been powerful. There have been comparisons to The Exorcist – the movie that in 1973, caused me to write my first ever film review, a habit that has continued unbroken ever since. In its central theme, however,  Hereditary is much closer to another classic, Rosemary’s Baby, but – while it certainly has much to recommend it – it’s not really in the same league as either of those other horror milestones; moreover, it’s fatally compromised by an ending that’s so risible, it actually causes audience laughter in the screening I attend.

After the death of her estranged and secretive mother, Annie (Toni Collette), an artist who specialises in recreating scenes from her life in miniature, starts to unravel a series of clues from the odds and ends her mother left behind. Her 13 year old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), has clearly been powerfully affected by her grandmother’s death, behaving in a strange and very disconcerting manner, while her older brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), is more interested in the popular teenage pursuits of getting stoned and laid. Annie’s accommodating husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), just tries to keep everything rubbing along as best he can. But when Peter is a key player in a tragic and accidental death, something evil seems to settle around the house like a shroud, exerting an increasingly powerful grip…

The first thing to say about Hereditary is that first time writer/director Ari Aster has forged a powerful and highly effective debut. Eschewing the fast-paced jump cuts of many contemporary horror films, this is a real slow burner, a simmering pressure cooker that only gradually comes to the boil and manages to instil in the viewer an overpowering sense of creeping horror. The cinematography eerily manages to mix Annie’s doll’s house imagery with the actual interiors from the rambling, family home, while Toni Collette puts in an extraordinarily accomplished performance in the lead role, managing to convince us that she is genuinely terrified.

But then there’s that awful ending, which – to my mind at least – manages to destroy all the accomplishments that have gone before. And while I appreciate there’s a necessity to tie up the loose ends of the plot, it helps if that plot makes some kind of narrative sense. It must be said that other reviewers seem to have had no problem with this, so perhaps I’m just difficult to please – but trust me, the audience reaction on the evening I view this is pretty unequivocal. However, in an attempt to ensure fairness, I’ve decided to star-rate this film rather differently from our other reviews.

(Most of the film) 4.4 stars

(Last 10 minutes) 1 star

Philip Caveney