Director Ari Aster’s Id is on full display in ‘Beau Is Afraid’
An epic gauntlet of primal dread shouldn’t be this fun to watch, and yet Beau is Afraid manages to make the harrowing almost hilarious. Ari Aster has a special way of curdling the banal with surreal scares—even crossing the street to buy a bottle of water turns into a nail-biting moment of peril. And don’t even try to take a bath, unless you’re braced for a naked tussle with a desperate home invader precariously—and preposterously—braced against the ceiling. This latest psychedelic psych-out psychodrama from the maker of Midsommar and Hereditary is the anxiety auteur’s uniquely singular, proudly perverse version of a comedy. It’s admirably uncompromising, and in its single-minded way just as difficult to love. But Good Lord, what an original voice.
BEAU IS AFRAID ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Ari Aster
Written by: Ari Aster
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Parker Posey
Running time: 179 min
“Every moment we wait only deepens the humiliation,” yet another guilt tripper scolds poor put-upon Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix, in method-acting schlub mode). He’s the middle-aged failson scion of a very powerful woman named Mona Wassermann (Patti LuPone; Zoe Lister-Jones in flashbacks), and he’s going on an apprehension-filled, anxiety-ridden trip to visit her. The film metes out fragments of exposition about their fraught relationship, the first being that Beau’s father is dead. He and his mother are planning to commemorate the anniversary of his death—if only he can make his flight. Which he doesn’t.
Lots of excellent excuses: he oversleeps because an insane neighbor blasted loud music all night, someone steals his luggage and house keys, his credit card is no longer valid. But Mona won’t hear it. On the phone, her voice goes from smothering affection to panicked worry to—worst of all—uninflected indifference. It’s terrifying. Then Beau calls back later. Worse news awaits.
“You’re fucked, pal,” says the superintendent in Beau’s crappy, graffiti-ridden, grime-infested building. And so begins Beau’s shambolic, Sisyphean quest to get from Point A to Point B. Only thing between him and Mona is an apartment infestation of Skid Row anarchists, a nude maniac named the Birthday Boy Stab Man, and a tattooed guy with black orbs for eyes. And that’s just his neighborhood block.
Beau is afraid for good reason: he’s constantly in situations that go sideways. His childhood first kiss is awkward and strained, equal parts arousing and angst-ridden. He’s still a virgin, mainly because his mother told him that if he and his distended testicles ever achieve orgasm, he will die instantly. After he gets hit by a car, Grace (Amy Ryan), the woman who rammed him, and her surgeon husband Roger (Nathan Lane) nurse him back to health. But their over-corrective doting masks their deep grief over a dead son as well as their exasperated neglect of a self-destructive, pill-popping teen daughter. What is a normal home anyway?
Aster rooted his previous films in reality, even if they strayed into near-surreal landscapes and situations. With Beau if Afraid, he jettisons any pretense of objective experience. How else to explain an extended fantasy sequence in which Beau enters a semi-animated world where a narrator describes at length an alternate trajectory for him involving a blissful domestic life with three sons? Or what about that elephantine penis monster his mother hides in her attic? Or the caterer for Jewish funeral services called Shiva Steve’s, offering “Grub for the Grieved”?
The funhouse-mirror world we see is the paranoid hellscape that Beau suffers daily. Guilty, scribbles his stone-faced therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) during one of their sessions. “Jesus Sees Your Abominations,” reads an outdoor billboard. “Stop incriminating yourself” is the handwritten message on a napkin under his coffee mug. This is the type of movie where a character will say, “I’m giving Jeeves his medication, so if you hear him screaming, he’s probably asleep.” Everyone is unsettled, everywhere. “What am I doing here?” asks a passerby. “Please tell me, what am I doing here?”
Beau is a magnet for misfortune: a black-hole sun with murderers, suicidal souls, orphans, war veterans, and unrequited lovers all orbiting around him. Phoenix’s committed performance—a marathon of unflattering physicality and raw emotional vulnerability—coupled with Aster’s nerve-shredding situational absurdity conjures deep wells of empathy. That miraculous sincerity prevents the movie from otherwise coming off as cruel and pithy.
But what’s missing is a convincing portrayal of the film’s foundational mother-son dynamic. Aster seems too focused, albeit impressively, on crafting set pieces that dazzle and delight in all their discomfort and gloom. But a three-hour movie needs to have cumulative power that builds and enriches its ideas and plot points. Yes, yes, Beau’s mother is overbearing, manipulative, and a shrew, but it’s a shorthand characterization that Aster sketches out in brief flashbacks until LuPone’s fire-breathing final-act entrance—talk about a broad broad—goes on a predicted harangue that seems to name-check all the familiar neuroses. The film doesn’t dramatize enough of Beau’s trials and tribulations with his mom; audiences will need to bring their banal presumptions to fill in the details of that relationship.
Even more dissonant is watching a super-sized saga starring such a passive protagonist. Beau is put-upon. He absorbs and digests. He witnesses. But he’s not an active force in his own story. Which is the film’s point, but also its fatal flaw. As a visceral head trip, Beau Is Afraid vividly conveys aching alienation. But as a mythopoetic narrative, it feels unfocused and unearned. And its prolonged adventure leads to the strangest, most flamboyantly anti-climactic climax in recent memory—complete with pyrotechnics. Then, in its last extended shot, as the credits roll, we literally watch spectators quietly filing out of an auditorium. Right after a very big bang, there’s nothing but a whimper.