Joaquin Phoenix stars as Beau in Beau is Afraid, a surrealist dark comedy that demands more from its audience than it offers.
Hereditary was Ari Aster’s horror exploration of grief. Midsommar, a break-up. His third film, Beau is Afraid, centers its surrealist oddity odyssey around anxiety, specifically paranoia. It illustrates the feeling of being a passive observer in a nightmare-fueled hellscape of an existence. And in that effort, it succeeds. I now know what it’s like to wish I could wake up from a film and forget it ever happened.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Beau, a gentle but perpetually anxious man in his late 40s who lives in a world heightened by every measure imaginable. Mentally ill homeless people crowd the street in front of his apartment. Dead bodies litter the streets while cops stand on the corner doing nothing about anything. And even the elevator looks like it wants to kill Beau. There’s no doubt Beau has reason to be afraid, to the point where trying to step into his shoes without feeling like an unwelcome parasite requires unfathomable effort.
The main plot follows Beau on a journey home to visit his rich and powerful mother (she’s played by Patti LuPone in the present day and Zoe Lister-Jones when in flashback). This proves more challenging than expected when Beau’s apartment gets ransacked, he sustains heavy injuries from a car accident, and just about every fear this man has comes to fruition seemingly all at once. His one ray of hope, at least for a time, comes in the form of a married couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan). They take him in so he can heal up and certainly appear normal. But, well, this movie has other plans.
“Your adventures will continue for years and years.”
Beau is Afraid works best when telling its story through visuals and pastiche, of which there is much to be found thanks to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (a frequent collaborator with Aster). The film knows it’s a challenging journey of an experience and tries to soften these blows with tantalizing editing transitions and creative imagery that does propel the film forward when needed the most. The problem is this is a 3-hour film repeating the same three core ideas in thematically pretentious ways. Relief comes sparingly, which is perhaps a highlight for some viewers who invite a challenge of endurance.
At least one of these core ideas has something of a conventional arc, even if the final minutes mostly toss it aside. Beau’s essentially the 48-year-old virgin because he’s been told all his life that giving in to his sexual pleasures would literally kill him. The film throws this ball into the air with trauma surrounding the father he never met, a forlorn childhood sweetheart, and a jarringly long storybook tangent done far better in films like The Twentieth Century. None of these disparate therapy sessions masquerading as themes really come together at all. Except maybe to improvise shock and surprise with the occasional, desperate laugh.
The bottom line.
Fever dream movies like this can be frustrating at best, depending on how well the director executes. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! certainly shares DNA with Beau is Afraid, though the former is far more metaphorical and appreciative of the audience’s patience when it comes to runtime. Choose any Charlie Kaufman film and you find a rewarding second watch to dig through the details and see what a genius can dream up with full creative freedom. Aster’s artistic license by contrast is a journey leading nowhere worth going.
Beau is Afraid expands its theatrical release on April 21. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of A24
BEAU IS AFRAID - 4/10