Beau is Afraid, 2023.
Written and Directed by Ari Aster.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix. Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Kylie Rogers, Denis Ménochet, Parker Posey, Zoe Lister-Jones, Armen Nahapetian, Julia Antonelli, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Richard Kind, Hayley Squires, Julian Richings, Bill Hader, and Alicia Rosario.
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.
Writer/director Ari Aster never makes the same horror movie twice. He is an unbelievably talented filmmaker, back with Beau is Afraid (following up Midsommar and Hereditary) and once again challenging himself to find scares and psychological jolts in bizarre approaches through highly complex parental and familial dynamics, this time defying traditional genre labels altogether with darkly comedic surrealist storytelling.
A therapy session serves as an introduction to the anxiety-fueled Beau (a mild-mannered and paranoid Joaquin Phoenix, somewhere between sad and pitiful, brilliantly portrayed with endless vulnerability), riddled with guilt over not having traveled home to visit his mom in years. Amusingly, “guilt” is the only word his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) writes down in his notebook during the session, which might be the only grounded scene across the gargantuan but unsettlingly transfixing three-hour running time.
Beau is Afraid takes place in a heightened version of our modern America, replete with assault rifle shootings, serial killer stabbings (known as the birthday suit killer, to give one a sense of the demented humor on display here), theft, muggings, breaking and entering, and all-around chaos in the streets. At one point, the quest to run across the street for bottled water becomes perilous. It could be argued that this is the overactive imagination of someone functioning with such a high level of anxiety, but this is also the absurd world Ari Aster has fine-tuned for his characters to inhabit.
Working together with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Ari Aster also frames much of the mayhem in the background of wide shots, loading each shot with more insanity from the streets. There are also jokes on building walls, with considerable care put into these crazed personalities and making them pop off the screen. It’s similar to watching a man navigate a war zone while being attacked with anxiety.
If making it back and forth across the street wasn’t difficult enough, tragedy soon arises that forces Beau to finally commit to returning home to his mother, requiring much more interaction with the outside world. Frankly, this is also where every plot synopsis of Beau is Afraid should stop, considering part of what makes the experience so nerve-shredding is that the journey faces so many roadblocks while bringing several new characters into the fray, there’s genuinely no sense of where Ari Aster is taking the story or what his endgame is.
What can be said is that the journey is filled with some equally puzzling flashbacks to a teenage Beau (Armen Nahapetian) on a cruise with his mom Zoe Lister-Jones), at a time when things were somewhat looking up in his life, winding up on the receiving end of attention from Elaine (Julia Antonelli) whom he finds attractive. In the present day, he comes across strange characters such as a Ned Flanders- reminiscent surgeon (Nathan Lane) to a teenage girl (Rogers) lashing out at him for circumstances out of his control, culminating in one of the most disturbing scenes Ari Aster has ever put to screen.
There are also parallels to these families and childhoods that increasingly become fascinating to dig deeper into once all the cards are on the table, and the film concludes with an hour-long of sheer mind-fucking that somehow also gives more context to Beau’s life and his strained relationship with his mother.
In the middle of all this is a stunning animated sequence from Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León (2018’s The Wolf House, a feature Ari Aster adores) serving as a unique interpretation of a different aspect of the journey. The story specifics are irrelevant right now; the point is that Ari Aster is practically fusing a short film into this one, done so logically and beautifully. There may have been a moment or two where I questioned where any of this was going, but there was never a moment the film wasn’t casting a hypnotic spell during that process.
It also shouldn’t be lost that Beau is Afraid is darkly funny, and possibly so in ways that people might not be prepared to handle given the state of the world. There are also immature visual gags centered on dicks that elicit laughs, but typically from a deranged and horrifying context. Eventually, Beau has a confrontation of sorts with characters from his past played by Parker Posey and Patti LuPone, with the latter giving a scorching performance that’s on the same level of intensity as Toni Collette in Hereditary. The third hour here is a full-on descent into psychological madness that is entrancing, tying everything together but with so much more left to analyze.
And I fully admit that I gladly require another viewing of Beau is Afraid to unpack and connect the puzzle pieces more (there’s another uncomfortably hilarious joke involving a jigsaw puzzle game), but just letting it wash over during the first viewing is rattling and brain-melting. It’s a deeply harrowing, existentially idiosyncratic complex portrait of a son and mother with a black comedy heart that transcends genre classification.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com