Your local multiplex now has two delightful films just in time for Mother’s Day: Evil Dead Rise and Beau is Afraid. Both would make for a very fun triple feature. The third, you ask? A trip to therapy, if you can even stand up straight after stomaching both back-to-back.
Described by Ari Aster as both a “Jewish Lord of the Rings” as well as the end result of “pumping a 10-year-old full of Zoloft and having him get your groceries,” Beau is Afraid sends your anxiety soaring to new heights and slides your nerves through a paper shredder for 179 maddening minutes. The filmmaker behind such genre-fluid gems as Hereditary and Midsommar fills his third feature with horrifying visions of a society eating itself alive and a broken, almost infantile man who can barely muster the urge to keep going. However, what awaits him is his destiny, so persist he must.
The titular character is Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix), the son of a famous and wealthy business mogul named Mona (Patti LuPone). He lives in a dilapidated apartment in a downtown district plagued by violence and homelessness: people fight in the middle of the street, stab one another, and the roads are littered with bodies and carnage. Beau has to sprint to his apartment to beat whatever junkie is trying to break into his complex every night. Inside his sparsely decorated space are mementos, notes, and other keepsakes from his mother, all stamped with her initials “M. W.”
Beau is planning to catch a flight to visit his mother, but a series of unfortunate events render him unable to leave his apartment. He rings to tell her that he’s lost his apartment key, and is thus unable to lock his door. “I trust you’ll do the right thing,” she tells him in that motherly voice that prompts feelings of guilt and embarrassment. This is the hellscape in which he lives.
A lot happens in the first hour of Beau is Afraid, but it ultimately boils down to this: shortly after missing his flight, Beau gets some tragic news about his mother and must find a way to get to her. He has a panic attack that has him running naked in the streets only to be hit by a truck and wake up in the suburban abode of two parents (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan) grieving the loss of their army son. Beau wakes up in their daughter’s (Kylie Rogers) bed, and she’s not too pleased about a weird old man sleeping in her K-pop poster clad bedroom. What entails is an odyssey that has Beau tapdancing on the line of sanity.
Aster tells this story with vignettes of varying lengths. The first act — where we spend half the time in Beau’s dangerous neighborhood and the other in the suburbs — functions as a distressing blend of horror and black comedy. It showcases Aster’s talents as a narrative tactician, and the entrapping nature of being in an abusive relationship with a family member for so long that you don’t have a sense of self (you can’t lose what you’ve never had). The second act drops Beau in the middle of the woods, where he sits and watches a play that serves as an existential metaphor of his life. Underscoring the visual uniqueness of this extended sequence — I have no idea how long it went on, but it felt like 25 minutes at least — is some striking stop-motion animation by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña. Alas, it does get repetitive, with droning narration substituting dialog and depriving us of the suffocating verisimilitude so deftly built for the preceding hour.
Aster also treats us to flashbacks that contextualize Beau’s childhood. There are two moments in particular that have defined young Beau (played by Armen Nahapetian): a cruise ship romance with a young girl that leaves his mother feeling threatened, as well as an instance where Beau witnesses the depths of his mother’s cruelty whilst taking a bath. The best way I can articulate Beau is Afraid is it’s like having a nightmare with your eyes open. I felt myself feeling lucid, lost in the visual madness and utterly captivated by Joaquin Phoenix, who has never looked so disheveled and drained of all things human. His voice is hushed and frail. His eyes are sunken and soft. He looks pale and sickly. Like Aster, he’s in dire need of a hug.
The final act is obviously best left unspoiled, but it’s captivated by multiple revelations and a trial where psychological trauma, expositional detail, and the ultimate breaking of a human being are put on full display before a massive audience. It’s during this time that Bobby Krlic’s score starts to rise to the point of becoming a drone; the hues of Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography have become so saturated to the point that it’s as if we’re looking at a screen that’s been dowsed in ink. If your nerves aren’t fried by this point, they will be filed down accordingly.
Beau is Afraid doesn’t envelope you in its world quite like Midsommar. It’s no fault of the aestheticians like production designer Fiona Crombie, but more-so the fact that, like Beau, we can never get fully comfortable with what we’re enduring. The film also feels its length in ways that previous Aster works didn’t. As is the case with a number of films where suddenly proven directors were afforded most of the creative control, Aster’s latest likely would’ve retained its effectiveness by being trimmed a bit. Prior to the aforementioned trial, the climax drags to the point of losing steam, especially after the movie-within-a-movie play takes so much time to unfold. In its pursuit of chaos, all-consuming fear, and dread, it occasionally becomes both impenetrable and obvious.
However, Aster would likely say he did his job if he left you emotionally exhausted and mentally drained.
NOTE: Beau is Afraid is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Parker Posey, Armen Nahapetian, and Kylie Rogers. Directed by: Ari Aster.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!