THE STORY – Following the sudden death of his mother, a mild-mannered but anxiety-ridden man confronts his darkest fears as he embarks on an epic, Kafkaesque odyssey back home.
THE CAST – Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Stephen McKinley Henderson & Parker Posey
THE TEAM – Ari Aster (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 179 Minutes
Will somebody please check on Ari Aster? After torturing us with his diabolical short films, including his twisted breakthrough “The Strange Thing About The Johnsons,” and then moving into feature-length films with the artfully constructed and depressingly terrifying “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” he has reached a new level of provocation with his third and most ambitious film to date, “Beau Is Afraid.” With his last two films becoming critical and financial successes for the New York-based independent film studio A24, they have given Aster a blank check (in this case, $35 million, the highest budget in the studio’s history) and complete creative freedom to let his deranged and sadistic mind run unchecked. The result is the most uncomfortable indie epic you’ll likely ever sit through for nearly three hours as Aster places us directly in the headspace of a pathetic but sympathetic loser who is racked by fear, anxiety, guilt, and repression.
Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) is a kind but an extremely anxious middle-aged man who is visiting his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) not so much about the thoughts of drinking mouthwash that he’s been having lately but more so about an upcoming visit he’s about to have with his mother (Patti LuPone), an overbearing business titan who raised him as an only child on her own after his father died before he was even born. It’s apparent the upcoming visit is weighing on his mind, and after returning home to his rundown apartment, we can immediately tell Beau lives a sad and lonely life. On the morning of his trip, after a rough night of sleep caused by the junkies and psychos running through the streets of his neighborhood, Beau believes the key to his apartment was possibly stolen, which causes him to miss his flight and brings disappointment to his mother. It’s the beginning of a neverending series of tragically unfortunate events which befall Beau as he gets stabbed, run over, shot at, blamed for murder, and more as he desperately tries to make it across the country to visit his mother. As his journey takes him to places he thought he’d never go, physically, psychologically, and emotionally he encounters a friendly doctor (Nathan Lane), his wife (Amy Ryan), their teenage daughter (Kylie Rogers), and their deceased marine veteran son’s friend (Denis Ménochet) who may or may not be being held at their home against his will with an injured and disoriented Beau possibly next. Will he be able to “stop the humiliation” and complete his journey in time?
What does such a film tell us about Aster? How does he view the world? What was his relationship with his mother like growing up? How much of what we see in “Beau Is Afraid” is real, and what is only a dark conjuring of our protagonist’s imagination? Do we even really want to know? Or would the answers simply make us afraid? “Beau Is Afraid” offers no easy solutions. At times, it feels more like a perplexing exercise in stylistic punishment for Aster to understand better how far he can push his audience rather than offer any definitive substance.
Without sounding reductive, “Beau Is Afraid” can be boiled down to “mommy and daddy issues.” It’s more so the latter than the former, considering Beau’s father died the night he was conceived due to a heart condition, a heart condition which he, of course, passed down to his son, or so his mother says. The telling of this from a young age has most likely haunted Beau’s psyche from a young age and turned him into the miserable manchild he is today. So much of what “Beau Is Afraid” is trying to communicate is how living a life ruled by fear is not a life worth living at all, as Beau is constantly afraid at all times. He’s scared of his environment, disappointing others, intimacy with women, and his basic human impulses for sexual pleasure. Much of what he experiences gives off the firm impression to the audience that he’s the very definition of a loser. From his out-of-shape, middle age body, fading grey hair, lack of self-confidence, and not a single assertive bone in his body, Beau is a hard character to like, but Aster makes it clear it’s not all his fault.
The trauma passed down from his mother has tormented Beau his entire life, turning him into a mamma’s boy of the worst kid as he dotes, bends, and yields to his mother’s every beck and call. While she does not fully appear until the third act (Zoe Lister-Jones plays young Mona Wassermann in flashbacks), Patti LuPone devours every ounce of screentime she’s served with sick pleasure as her experienced decades-spanning career on the stage takes front and center, commanding the screen and sometimes throwing icy, sometimes fiery daggers at a helpless Beau. Getting to this delicious piece of screen acting from a true thespian may take a while. Still, by the time we do, all of Beau’s anxieties and hurts manifest into a single volcanic performance from LuPone that crystallizes the film’s previously hard-to-decipher themes into a coherent piece. Make no mistake about it; it’s a lot to unpack. But there are some rewards to be found amongst all the chaos and likely will require another viewing or two to fully grasp.
Channeling all of Beau’s psychological misery with no heroic or likable qualities granted to him by Aster outside of his bewilderment (to match the audience’s similar feeling of constant bafflement) and innate desire to want to be there for his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death, Joaquin Phoenix proves once again why he’s not only one of the best actors of his generation but one of the very best of all time. Only an actor of his skill could take us on this maddening journey with the kind of confidence his character lacks. His emotional commitment to the role is a magnificent feat of acting, even if it borders on becoming tiresome and repetitive by the film’s end (how many times are we going to watch Beau confusingly stutter and react to the mystifying events taking place on screen?).
There is a sequence in the middle of the film where a disoriented Beau comes across a traveling theater forest company. After a certain amount of time, we are naturally guided into a mini-story within the story where Aster pulls out several directorial tricks, including ingenious uses of animation and practical effects to showcase a whole other character’s life and search to reunite with his lost sons in the wake of personal tragedy. When Phoenix (who assumes the role of the protagonist during this mini-film within the film), covered in old-age makeup, reaches this story’s conclusion arc, his vulnerability and depth touch upon something utterly beautiful and magical. It’s undoubtedly the film’s greatest achievement and a memorable piece of storytelling from Aster, Phoenix, and all the various craft departments.
At nearly three hours, “Beau Is Afraid” suffers from an exceedingly long runtime. Aster’s precise use of match-cuts, which were used so prominently in his previous two films, his command over crafting a nervewracking soundscape (the opening sequence before the film’s title card is a particular standout, along with the almost warzone-sounding streets outside Beau’s apartment) and the stunning production design (there seems to be a hidden visual metaphor in nearly every single scene) all do their best to hold your interest against the film’s excruciating pacing. While it’s never dull and is always keeping you on the edge of your seat, wondering what could possibly happen next (when a specific nightmarish monster manifests from the traumatic shadows of Beau’s childhood home, you’ll honestly know that anything is possible in this movie), it starts to become evident that having some restriction on Aster from A24 might not have been the worse thing.
In an age where creatives are playing everything primarily safe, it’s thrilling to watch an artist be given the freedom to let whatever sick thoughts are inside their brain slowly trickle out for nearly three hours on this scale. “Beau Is Afraid” may not be a horror film in the same sense as “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” but it’s a different kind of horror, one that will challenge, alienate and push people out of their comfort zones (it’s also Aster’s funniest film to date, with layers upon layers of dark, subversive humor). It may be messy and unpleasant, but much like the works of Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch, the cinematic landscape is that much richer for its presence and unimaginable existence.