Ari Aster wrote and directed Hereditary and Midsommar, the latter of which is my favorite movie of the past ten years. After that amazing one-two punch, I knew I’d follow Aster anywhere his career might lead. Right now, it leads to Beau Is Afraid, another audacious work that defies easy description. The film exemplifies everything that’s special about him as a director. He’s not afraid to take storytelling risks, nor to challenge the audience’s expectations. Given that genuine originality is in short supply on the cinematic landscape these days, that’s a vital quality to possess.
The story opens with a childbirth from the newborn’s perspective. That baby grows up to be Beau Wassermann, played by Joaquin Phoenix. He’s a single, balding, middle-aged man who lives in a rundown apartment in a seedy neighborhood, where his building is surrounded by strip clubs and porn shops. Beau has terrible anxiety, which Aster shows by hilariously exaggerating the “danger” the character perceives on his block. (When he looks out his window, he sees a guy cheerfully gouging another guy’s eyes out right in the middle of the street.) A bigger source of anxiety is his pending visit to see his demanding mother, a visit he misses out on after losing his keys.
Mom lays a guilt trip on him. Then comes word that she’s been killed in a tragic accident. What happens next can be described in multiple ways – as a dissociation from reality, as a nightmare, or as a hallucinatory journey. Regardless of how you define it, Beau goes through a series of bizarre occurrences. He ends up recuperating from serious injuries at the home of a couple named Roger (Nathan Lane) and Grace (Amy Ryan), who treat him more like a child than a guest. He encounters a theater troupe in the middle of the woods, getting sucked into their production. He’s reunited with Elaine (Parker Posey), a passing acquaintance from his childhood. And then there’s what he finds in an attic. Even if I was inclined to tell you what it is, you probably wouldn’t believe me.
Beau Is Afraid does not have a linear story, and events that transpire are intentionally outlandish. That’s a big part of what makes the movie so captivating. You have no clue what crazy thing is going to come next. Aster has more up his sleeve than random weirdness, though. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Beau is facing distorted representations of his anxieties. He confronts sexual insecurity, anguish over not having known his father, guilt for not being a good enough son to his mother, and so on. By taking those neuroses and blowing them up into full-on madness, the film captures the intensity and discomfort of a panic attack. Beau feels his nervous episodes in a big way, so his exploits are presented to us in a similarly big way.
Aster has incredible control of tone. The plot is essentially divided into sections, each beginning with Beau waking up after having lost consciousness in the previous one. Parts of the film are hilariously funny, especially the early sequences in his crime-infested neighborhood and a third act sex scene that guarantees you’ll never listen to Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” the same way again. The section with the theater troupe detours into animation, taking on a melancholy vibe in the process. Near the end are a couple moments that play like horror. Shifting the tone allows Beau Is Afraid to evolve as it goes on, like a piece of music changing tempos to evoke an array of emotions while building to a powerhouse climax.
Joaquin Phoenix is as outstanding here as he’s ever been, making Beau’s fears alternately comical and harrowing. Lane and Ryan provide a layer of wry humor, and Patti Lupone comes in at the end for a show-stopping supporting role. All of them infuse the story with a human element that ties the outrageous happenings together. Beau Is Afraid is not a conventional movie. Audience members must be willing to take the ride to its final destination without needing every last little detail explained to them. The impressionistic approach is key to the magic, making this the kind of film you can’t get out of your head for days after experiencing.
out of four
Beau Is Afraid is rated R for strong violent content, graphic nudity, drug use, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 59 minutes.