Ari Aster is dealing with some serious mommy issues. And attics. The guy must have a thing about attics. We saw him unburden himself a little bit with Hereditary, the breakout horror that put Aster on the map, but with Beau is Afraid the filmmaker takes his audience on a 3-hour Oedipal roller coaster. This is a swing-for-the-fences, self-indulgent exercise that very few directors get to make this early in their careers. But with the success Aster has found already, A24 was inclined to keep him happy with this film that defies easy categorization and is sure to be deeply divisive, even among Aster’s most devoted fans.
I came at this from the perspective of someone who was in a room full of Aster devotees. Having bought a ticket with a couple of my friends to special screening of Aster’s most superior horror, Midsommar, we were instead treated by the folks at A24 to a premiere of Beau is Afraid. The electricity going through the audience was palpable. In the beginning. It was a bit foggy when all was said and done, though, or at least that was the read I got from the room.
This is the rare Joaquin Phoenix vehicle that isn’t absolutely commanded by the Oscar-winning actor. I think that you could’ve put just about anybody in the lead role and it would still be mainly an Ari Aster joint. Phoenix plays the titular Beau, a soft, graying man who lives in total fear of the outside world. From the beginning, as we witness the moment of his birth, Beau seems to be someone who would rather stay in his mother’s womb forever. As a middle-aged adult, he doesn’t appear to have improved much. The bulk of his therapy sessions center on his mother, whose approval he’s always trying to get. Beau lives in what can only be described as a Hellscape, a city full of psychopaths who litter the streets with victims. He literally has to duck and avoid them to get into his crappy apartment, a studio far beneath his station. See, Beau’s mother is actually a very successful, very wealthy businesswoman, Mona Wasserman (Patti LuPone) which begs the question why her son lives in such squalor. Why indeed.
When he learns, through an excruciatingly awkward phone call, that his mother has been killed in a fashion so ludicrous it might’ve been an unused Curb Your Enthusiasm subplot, Beau must journey home to attend her funeral. This begins a surreal adventure where Beau is hit by a truck, then held captive in the home of a grief-stricken, pill-dispensing family (Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Kylie Rogers) and the psychotic PTSD-afflicted soldier who lives on their property. He also encounters a nomadic, forest-dwelling group of actors, and must come to grips with a lost love (Parker Posey) from his odd childhood.
Symbolism abounds, and nothing is to be taken at face value. Everything has a deeper meaning, as Aster unfurls the deep wells of emotional trauma and mental anguish Beau has been coping with. Aster seems to have taken a hint or two from the Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry playbook, playing around with visual styles (there’s a nifty animated odyssey sequence and others that resemble Life of Pi) and tone with an abundant flourish. The film is at its best when Aster is unafraid to spill his emotional guts, so to speak, without care for how others will react to it. A large chunk of the film is straight-up gonzo comedy, with Phoenix plastered with a look on his face like he just stepped on a loose plank or a garden rake. The sillier Aster is willing to go, the more enjoyable Beau is Afraid can be, because you don’t have to think about the emotional turmoil one must have to be in to make an entire film where the dead mother looms like an albatross. Never since Psycho has a deceased maternal figure carried such devastating weight. Beau is a guilt-ridden basketcase unprepared for the daily grind that is life. And yet we can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. Aster introduces a little bit of sweetness into this bewildering story in flashback, as a young Beau (Phoenix doppelganger Armen Nahapetian) falls in love for the first time while on a vacation cruise with his mother (Zoe Lister-Jones). It’s here that we see the child-like adoration he has for his mother, but also an introduction to the fear we see in him as an adult.
The last hour, however, is tough to sit through. Put plainly, the film is incredibly overlong. Someone needed to whisper into Aster’s ear about a significant edit. The worst thing about the final act is the lack of trust Aster has in his audience to get the point, so he hammers every emotional note in a repetitive fashion.
Beau is Afraid, for all of its problems, is never dull and will genuinely stay on your mind for the long haul. It’s the kind of film that, if it weren’t so long, would require multiple viewings to pick up on everything that Aster has laid down for us to see. This is big swing filmmaking, and Aster unloads a lot on anyone who goes to see it. Beau is Afraid is an exhausting, dizzying experience, but also genuinely funny and thought-provoking. No matter what, it’s not a film you’ll forget any time soon.
A24 will release Beau is Afraid into theaters on April 21st.