Beau Is Afraid: Joaquin Phoenix’s Mommy Issues Aren’t the Only Problems in Ari Aster Film
Ari Aster's biggest swing yet in Beau Is Afraid was the movie he wanted to make before Hereditary and Midsommar. You feel it in a work that's far less disciplined or refined.
Even if Beau Is Afraid, writer/director Ari Aster is not. This is evident since after two intense horror outings via his bracing debut Hereditary (2018) and the folk-horror epic Midsommar (2019), Aster’s third feature has now arrived as an intensely strange mash-up of that initial genre along with surreal psychodrama, black comedy, and an outright experimentalism that even dabbles in animation. It’s a deliberately weird stew.
But like some of his contemporaries—I’m thinking of Damien Chazelle with Babylon and Robert Eggers with The Northman—Aster’s big swing is failing to connect. Beau Is Afraid is three hours long and feels every minute of it; the filmmaker even said he came up with this script before he developed his first two horror features, and it feels like the work of a younger filmmaker who wants to say everything he can in this one story because he doesn’t know if he’ll get another chance.
The thing is, there doesn’t seem to be much to say. Joaquin Phoenix—in a performance that seems to be of a piece with other recent, reductive work like Joker—plays a tortured, psychologically damaged, borderline helpless, and inarticulate man-child named Beau. He lives in a crummy apartment in what must be the shittiest neighborhood in all of America. It’s clear from the outset that the near-apocalyptic world Beau lives in (or least the one he sees) is a highly exaggerated version of ours.
We don’t know what, if anything, Beau does for a living, and it may not matter in this scenario, but we do know he sees a therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) to deal with the death of his father and his complicated relationship with his mother. It’s while he’s getting ready to hop on a plane to visit her that a series of disasters strike, leaving Beau without his keys, his luggage, or indeed his apartment, as a Dawn of the Dead-like horde of local vagrants, junkies, and thieves drive him from his decrepit sanctuary.
Still more bad news arrives in shocking fashion, and soon Beau must return home no matter what. But his quest to get back to the house he grew up in is beset by many obstacles, starting with the wealthy suburban couple, Roger and Grace (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan), who insist on taking care of Beau after creaming him with their car.
And so it goes. Beau must endure an episodic series of adventures, disasters, and nightmares, all while Beau Is Afraid becomes increasingly more surreal. Unfortunately, as Beau’s issues with his mother (icily played in younger and older versions by Zoe Lister-Jones and the legendary Patti LuPone) come to the forefront, the viewer begins to feel more and more distant from it. It doesn’t help that Phoenix’s performance, while clearly another physical and psychological marathon for this immensely talented actor, is alienating from the start. We can’t find a way to empathize with Beau because his circumstances from the start are so heightened in their misery and dislocation while his reactions are either passive or hysterical.
In the end, despite a top-notch cast (including Parker Posey as a childhood flame of Beau’s who briefly comes back into his life), a handful of both genuinely creepy and funny moments, and a stunningly beautiful animated sequence courtesy of The Wolf House writers-directors Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León, Beau Is Afraid is a slog. It’s an ambitious one, novelistic and grand in intent, but taking three hours to essentially deal with a dance of guilt and emotional abuse between mother and son, with an increasingly enigmatic narrative that offers nothing but destruction, proves too unwieldy.
That’s a shame, because Aster clearly has bigger aims that he just can’t articulate here. Hereditary dealt with family, and specifically mother, issues in much more compact and eerie fashion, giving a traditional tale about the sins of our ancestors a visceral and psychological edge, while Midsommar was a bit more confused yet still effectively transmitted its theme of a woman overcoming trauma through an extreme form of spiritual catharsis.
Beau Is Afraid takes the worst aspects of the latter film—a muddling of theme and tone—and applies it to a four-part structure in which each section almost represents a different genre entirely, but has nothing under the surface to power it along. In the end, it’s not even clear what Beau is afraid of, but this exhausting, punishing movie doesn’t give us enough to truly feel for him.
A24 releases Beau Is Afraid in U.S. theaters on April 21.