Joaquin Phoenix’s first scene in Beau Is Afraid takes place in his therapist’s office, setting the story in motion while also presenting a roadmap of sorts for everything that follows. Phoenix plays the titular Beau, a forty-something-year-old virgin with truly unfortunate levels of male pattern baldness and a prominent spare tire (the weight swing between this and his performance in Joker, only a few years ago, has to be 75 lbs, at minimum). In the aforementioned scene, Beau and his doctor are grappling with the prospect of traveling out of town to visit his domineering mother; posing questions that only agitate Beau further (“do you ever wish that she was dead?”) from behind a Cheshire Cat grin, the doctor (Stephen McKinley Henderson) sends Beau off with a prescription for a new anxiety medication, replete with terrifyingly commonplace side effects (“If you start to feel warm or have an elevated heart rate, that’s bad”). Given this framing, one could view everything that happens in this film thereafter as the result of an adverse reaction to Beau’s new pills, but that would be far too prosaic a read on director Ari Aster’s bugfuck odyssey. Instead, Beau Is Afraid aspires to do no less than dramatize an American Psychiatric Association textbook’s worth of phobias and stressors — large, small, and yet-to-be-classified. The film is something like the Terminator, only it’s in relentless pursuit of that elusive trigger that will send the viewer into a full-on panic attack.
Living in an under-furnished, third-story apartment in the sort of urban hellscape only found in Fox News fever dreams, Beau steps over dead bodies lying in the road, outruns mentally ill vagrants, and absent-mindedly wanders past floor-to-ceiling vulgar graffiti and warnings about brown recluses in the building. And this is all to get back to an abode that looks like the kind of space single, middle-aged men rent out shortly before hanging themselves. It’s the type of place where residents are menaced by a nude serial killer (a news report helpfully clarifies that the suspect is circumcised), and the local citizenry proceed to congregate in zombie-like hordes in the middle of the street. And this is Beau’s safe space: the place he’s being guilted into leaving for a weekend visit with his emotional-terrorist, titan-of-industry mother, Mona (played by Patti Lupone in present-day scenes, and Zoe Lister-Jones in flashback).
For much of the film’s masterful first hour, we watch Beau attempting to navigate cascading inconveniences that conspire to derail his trip. The water in his apartment has been shut off; an irate neighbor keeps sliding passive-aggressive notes under his door in the middle of the night, asking Beau to turn down the music when no music is even being played; a slept-through alarm clock makes Beau late for the airport. Then someone steals Beau’s house keys right out of the lock — after he scampered back inside for only a few seconds to grab his dental floss, a fitting character note — leaving even the man’s inner sanctum vulnerable. It seems reasonable, then, that Mona will be forgiving of him delaying his trip by a few hours so that he can call a locksmith. She is not. The film continues on like this, building indignity on top of indignity, reaching a crescendo when Beau receives horrifying news from home, in the least comforting way imaginable, shortly before being run into by an RV while running naked through the streets (his distended and severely swollen testicals occasionally jostling into the frame). And that’s when, as the expression goes, things start to get weird.
Beau Is Afraid is the eagerly anticipated follow-up from Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar), who, after only three feature films, has emerged as the most breathlessly hyped name in A24’s stable of in-house directors. Up until now, a genre filmmaker specializing in tightly-controlled, large-canvas squirm-fests, Aster abandons overt horror here (although there’s no shortage of shocking violence and unsettling moments) and doubles down on his pet theme of the lasting harm parents inflict upon their children. There’s something upsetting for Beau to fret about even in the most innocuous of places — for example, the cozy suburban home he’s taken to convalesce at by a way-too-chipper Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan. But, invariably, the film works its way back to the codependency and sexual dysfunction instilled in him by his mother at a young age. Aster’s previous films were legitimate hits, and Beau Is Afraid carries itself with the swagger of an artist comfortable burning through whatever capital they’ve amassed in service of chasing an undiluted vision. That extends to the film’s elephantine runtime (just a hair under 180 minutes) and comparatively large budget, but also to its disquieting framing of motherhood, sexuality, the human body, and the music of Mariah Carey. It’s an expansive, occasionally turgid film that seems designed to test an audience’s patience, particularly during a longish digression where Phoenix, on the run, stumbles upon a roving theater troupe that’s set up camp in the woods. It’s a confounding detour smack dab in the middle of the film, blurring the line between performer and audience, reality and metaphor, live-action and animation. To what end it serves remains unclear other than that it’s of a piece with the film’s Kaufman-esque pop surrealism and the director’s “who are you to say no to me?” mandate.
Maddeningly inscrutable by design, Beau Is Afraid — with its nightmarish Freudian imagery, “better living through pharmaceuticals” thematizing, and nods to both Judaism and Kafka — is all but begging to be solved (Internet explainers and crowd-sourced Reddit threads are due any minute now). Interpreting what it all means may not actually be worth the squeeze, but that’s almost incidental when put up against the film’s surface-level pleasures. There’s the precision of the filmmaking, with its emphasis on vertical compositions — the film is playing on IMAX screens in select markets for good reason — and building risible gags entirely through production design, set dressing, and throwaway props (e.g., an early scene finds Beau microwaving a TV dinner that boasts a flavor profile combination of Irish and Hawaiian cuisine). For the sort of person who can roll with it, there’s a queasy yet intoxicating discomfort to the way the film takes pliers and a blowtorch to the viewers’ last nerve, eliciting waves of shame and purposeful befuddlement from every new scenario Beau stumbles into. And then there are the heavily-stylized, outsized performances. On one end of the spectrum, you have Phoenix, his Beau so paralyzed by fear, humiliation, and conflicting instruction that he all but slides into catatonia. On the other end, there’s Lupone’s character: a sucking wound of self-justification, pettiness, and the desire to manipulate an adult son she still treats like a child, earning the actress honorary status in the Jewish Mothers Hall of Fame. The film’s ambitions and demonstrable craft aren’t redeeming in and of themselves, and certainly don’t absolve the film of its lumpiness, its narcissism, or some of its more juvenile tendencies, but the more off-putting qualities aren’t inherently disqualifying either. And there’s a bit of a perverse thrill in something this unaccommodating being unleashed on audiences probably expecting the latest iteration of “elevated horror.” In the end, Beau Is Afraid is something like a long therapy session: it’s expensive, self-indulgent, and should have probably remained private. But there’s also a morbid fascination in observing it, and, ultimately, the mother’s probably to blame.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.