Human psychology is a complicated business as any slight familiarity with the work of Sigmund Freud would attest. Take, for example, the case of Sergei Pankejeff, one of his most famous patients. Pankejeff would often dream of an open bedroom window through which a pack of wolves would be watching him. Freud delved deep into his patient’s psyche to interpret the dream as a manifestation of an early memory Pankejeff had of witnessing his parents having sex. Cynics would say, of course, that sex is at the root of everything Freud diagnosed, and perhaps it is. It certainly is at the root of Beau Is Afraid, the new film by Ari Aster, director of Hereditary and Midsommer.

The film is a darkly comic take on human psychology that probably requires an audience to be vaguely familiar with the work of Freud and Jung to appreciate it fully. It’s the story of Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), a perpetually anxious middle-aged man, living in a New York hellhole. He’s the kind of man who can’t leave his apartment without fearing something bad will happen to him. Yet he has good reason. There’s little that doesn’t induce anxiety. The street is a warzone, nothing in his building works, and everything comes with dire warnings attached.

Setting out to visit his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death, Beau manages to lose his apartment keys before he’s even left his apartment and thus begins a series of events that rapidly spiral out of control. This accounts for the first half of this admittedly too-long film, but those 90 minutes are masterful and well worth the price of admission. So too is the chance to see Phoenix, who received acclaim for Joker, a revisionist version of the Batman myth without the caped crusader. 

But in many ways, this film treads the same territory and is more successful. Joker was too derivative of two Martin Scorsese movies, The King of Comedy and Taxi DriverBeau Is Afraid is unique, though does have a passing resemblance to Scorsese’s lesser-known work, After Hours, another story of small mistakes having huge consequences.

Where it’s different, however, is how those consequences play out. You see, what begins as a simple narrative of Mistake A begets Problem B and Problem B begets Catastrophe C develops into a film that slowly strips away the psychology of a deeply troubled man. Beau’s neuroses are on account of his hugely domineering mother. His latent anxiety is Oedipal and the film becomes an epic quest into the murky depths of sexual dysfunction, both physical and mental. For the most part, it is brilliantly realised, even if it loses its way deep into the second hour where we’re treated to a long film within the film. It’s a beautifully animated sequence, full of meta content about the nature of story, and feels in many ways like a Jungian interpretation of movies and their archetypes, full of those paradoxes and contradictions that lie at the heart of dreams. But if it doesn’t make much sense to you, don’t worry. You’re not alone. This descent into a deep forest is symbolic as much as anything, like so much of the movie. There will be theses written about this film that won’t even begin to fathom its surrealist depths.

After this long and rather convoluted interlude, the film does recover its pace and the third hour (I did say this was a long film, clocking in at 180 minutes) is worth the wait as Beau finally comes face to face with the cause of his anxiety.

Along the way we have some wonderful performances from Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane, as a pair of good Samaritans who take Beau into their home after he’s hit by a car; Kylie Rogers as their deeply troubled daughter; and the always wonderful stalwart of indie movies, Parker Posey, as the adult version of his childhood love. Credit too and most of all to Phoenix for taking a role that exposes him (sometimes literally) to the camera’s most intimate gaze. Playing a broken man leaves him little chance to display emotional range, but it does demand that he plays a person confused by the world and simply at the whim of events, leaving him in a constant state of breakdown.

It’s a film easy to recommend but with the caveat that it’s sometimes hard to watch, extremely graphic in places (and in ways that belie its 15 certificate), and which might ultimately leave you cold.

Speaking of cold. How does a Western set in Finland sound?

Implausible? Well, it probably is given that Sisu has absolutely nothing to do with the Old West. It’s a Finnish movie set during the Second World War, yet it is a Western at heart. It would, in fact, be more accurate to call it a Spaghetti Western, except spaghetti is usually reserved for Italian moves (though often shot in Spain). Confused? Well, let’s call it a “Pine Western”. Or even a “Herring Western”. The point is: irrespective of whatever is currently Finland’s chief export, this is a Western in that it has all the classic tropes of those movies that made stars of Clint Eastwood and Franco Nero.

And this film should rightly make a star of Jorma Tommila who here plays Aatami, a former commando in the Finnish army who has decided to abandon the war. The German army is in retreat and after hard years of fighting so is Aatami. He leaves the front lines to start digging for gold and pretty soon he strikes a rich seam. With bags of the yellow stuff packed on his horse, he sets off for the city to cash in. Except on the way, he crosses paths with Germans who soon realise what they’ve found.

What follows is a refreshing yet brutal hour of revenge as Aatami reclaims what’s his. Needless to say, it’s a bad day for the Germans who soon realise that Aatami wasn’t simply an ageing gold miner. He was the legendary fighter that Russians had come to fear. Known as Koschei, the “Immortal”, he is a man who refuses to die and embodies the Finnish quality of “sisu”, a word hard to translate but represents the enormous reserves humans can draw upon when faced with danger.

This is not a complex film but like the very best genre work it’s done with precision and a real love for the films that came before it. It’s a Western, definitely, but it’s also an obvious mash-up of two Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood, the film that birthed Rambo (and is a much better film than Rambo’s later franchise installments would suggest), and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And in every respect, it’s a credit to the earlier material, being the kind of highly kinetic film that belongs in the generic category but also brings something new. Like true Spaghetti Westerns which are rarely about America as much as European post-war politics, Sisu seems to be a fable about modern Finland and a warning to Russia about the dangers of expanding West.

That it plays out extremely impressively is a credit to director Jalmari Helander (Rare Exports: A Christmas TaleBig Game) who manages to embroider Western themes in an almost transparent way. Special credit too should go to composers Juri Seppä and Tuomas Wäinölä. Their soundtrack manages to fuse a grungy guitar with nods to the classic themes of Ennio Morricone, all mixed in with some wonderful throat singing. It’s hard to describe but immediately easy to like. You’ll come out of the cinema wanting a copy of the soundtrack.

It’s highly recommended if you enjoy action and can handle copious amounts of gore done in that slightly camp, over-the-top way, that gives it an almost operatic quality. Maybe the sleeper hit of the year and, if so, highly deserved.

@DavidWaywell

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