Ari Aster is one of the hottest modern directors working today. Following his critically acclaimed horror films, Hereditary and Midsommar, A24 lets Aster go crazy with a generous budget ($50 million) to wield his broadest, weirdest canvas yet. He doesn’t connect with every wild pitch he throws here, but you can’t deny that this director dreams big.
In his debut film, Hereditary, a family with a demonic background is sent to hell. In Midsommar, Aster created a witty and sinister breakup movie with similar themes of family dysfunction and trauma. Those familiar themes continue in Beau Is Afraid, a literally balls-out “nightmare comedy” featuring an anxiety-ridden yet oddly disassociated Joaquin Phoenix.
What the heck is going on in this movie? It could take multiple viewings to crack the film’s dreamy secrets. It won’t be easy. At a hardcore and sometimes exhausting three hours, Aster seems to have created a film meant to be hated. Hey, that’s nightmares for you. It will no doubt divide audiences.
Fusing dark comedy, suspense and human drama, with dashes of bloody violence and perverse sex jokes, Aster creates a depraved dreamworld for us to get lost in and fill with our darkest secrets. He tells his epic-odyssey in a series of dread-filled vignettes, where reality and the surreal do a freaky dance. At times though, you can’t help but want more.
The film is never more potent then it is in it’s opening sequence, where we meet our lead character Beau (Phoenix) living in a over-medicated consumer hellscape, the city streets littered with dead bodies, depraved homeless people, and pornshops with names like Erectus Ejectus. Oh, and there’s a nude serial stabber on the loose. It’s all masterfully designed and captured by cinematographer Pawel Porgorzelski and set designer Fiona Crombie, with colors that pop like candy.
A day before going on a trip to visit his mom, Beau is having his weekly meeting with a therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) where we are quickly filled in on Beau’s paranoias (“Will drinking mouthwash give me cancer?”) and his complicated relationship with his mother (Zoe Lister-Jones, and the older version played by a scary-intense Patti LuPone). Beau’s therapist laughably asks if he wishes his mother were dead.
After a night of dodging killer homeless people, venomous spiders, and sleeping while chaos blares in all directions, Beau gets ready for his flight. Then his suitcase goes missing, and what follows is a series of WTF’s that will have you on the edge of your seat. The bonkers sequence ends with the news Beau’s mom has been killed by a chandelier, and a naked Beau running into the streets and getting hit by a van. And that’s just the first thirty minutes.
A bruised and bloodied Beau later wakes up in a picturesque home, where a comically whacko Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane greet him. It might be unclear at first what their motives could be for helping Beau. But when their hostile teenage daughter (Kylie Rogers) enters the scene, and a psycho ex-soldier named Jeeves (Denis Menochet) who served with their deceased son and lives in their backyard is introduced, a few theories could come to mind. Between PTSD meltdowns, Jeeves keeps a menacing eye on Beau, adding to the air of unease that envelops Beau as he is held captive and tries to leave their guarded house to get to his mom’s funeral. Like a real dream, getting away feels out of reach, until one of these characters starts drinking paint and a manic Beau makes a glass-busting escape. Don’t ask.
Running into the forests, Beau stumbles upon a traveling theater company putting on a play. It is here where Aster really tips the world out of balance, giving way to metaphysical-philosophy and deeper surrealism as we watch Beau journey through a beautifully-animated shape-shifting landscape, seeing a life as a man that could be if Beau wasn’t saddled with the psychological disabilities that keep him living in the shadows of guilt that plague his relationship with his mother and his entire life. For more on that, we are thrust into flashback memories of a young Beau (Armen Nahapetian) on a cruise ship with her, adding to the mystery and dread viewers might be overwhelmed by at this point in the film. It’s a lot, and it’s not exactly pleasant.
As the film moves into its final third, Beau finally gets to his mom’s house at the end of her funeral, and we are treated to a hilariously-cringe sex scene with a sexy-scandalous Parker Posey with an end-joke you could see a mile away, a standoff between Beau and some mystery guests no review should spoil, and something monstrous hiding in the attic (shades of Zulawski’s Possession) that could have audiences howling in laughter or rolling their eyes in disgust.
The film ends on a hard-bleak note, where Aster leaves the viewers in a gaping void of self-reflection, as Beau takes a boat ride out to sea and is confronted with a lifetime of resentments and left to fend for himself surrounded by an audience who just sit there and watch. What does it all mean? Is Beau dreaming, awake, or dead? Is it his mom’s fault he turned out this way, or is he equally culpable and it’s the other way around? The opposing views will be endless. Let the arguments begin.
Beau Is Afraid is an outrageous polarizer. Its success will depend on whether or not the audience attempts to put its demented pieces together, or if they assume that Aster is playing arty-pretentious mind games with a generous budget. It’s just as annoying as it is fascinating. But what we have here is a provocative indictment of our pill-popping, volatile culture, where we make excuses for the traps we set for ourselves and the endless nightmares it creates. In a Hollywood that hardly seems willing to take creative risks, it’s exhilarating to have an artist like Aster, flaws and all, challenging us to leap with him into the wild blue. That, no movie lover will want to miss.
Review by Arthur Glover
In theaters Apr 21, 2023
Written and directed by Ari Aster