A sickly picaresque guilt trip that stretches a single Jewish man’s swollen neuroses into a three-hour nightmare so queasy and personal that sitting through it feels like being a guest at your own bris (in a fun way!), Ari Aster’s seriocomic “Beau Is Afraid” may not fit the horror mold as neatly as his “Hereditary” or “Midsommar,” but this unmoored epic about a zeta male’s journey to reunite with his overbearing mother eventually stiffens into what might be the most terrifying film he’s made so far.
Mileage will vary on that score — the scares are typically less oh shit Toni Collette is spidering across the ceiling and more oy gevalt, Joaquin Phoenix’s enormous prosthetic testicles are causing me to squirm under the weight of my own emotional baggage — but anyone who would sooner die for their mom than answer the phone when she calls should probably mix a few Zoloft into their popcorn just to be safe. Those people should brace for a movie that triggers the same cognitive dissonance from the moment it starts, often relying on that friction to propel its plot forward in lieu of dramatic conflict. Most of all, they should brace for a movie they’ll love in an all too familiar way: unconditionally, but with a nagging exasperation over why it feels so hard.
Not that you should expect anything less from indie cinema’s dark prince of codependency. Despite being dusted with a degree of magical realism that locates it closer to a twisted fairy tale like “The Tin Drum” than to his previous work, Aster’s delirious third feature clarifies his artistic obsessions even as it expands them into surreal new shapes. Once again, “Beau Is Afraid” delivers another morbidly hilarious — and fiercely skeptical — look at the unstable relationship between love and obligation, lineage and entrapment. Once again, it’s full of all the haunted attics, headless bodies, and ominous triangular houses that have already become its young auteur’s signature flourishes.
For all of its self-referentiality, however, “Beau Is Afraid” is also quick to reveal itself as a fundamentally different beast than “Hereditary” and/or “Midsommar” (and not just because the movie is so unrepentantly Jewish that every one of its cuts feels like it was performed by a mohel). That change of pace starts with Aster’s decision to forego a straightforward genre narrative in favor of an unclassifiable Odyssean mindfuck. While the film’s plot couldn’t be simpler — a 49-year-old virgin named Beau Wassermann (Phoenix) journeys to his mother’s house across a country gone mad — its frazzled and strictly episodic telling owes more to Charlie Kaufman and Albert Brooks than it does to any of the ancient Greeks.
But the most significant departure from Aster’s earlier stuff can be found in how “Beau Is Afraid” frames its relationship with fear. Here is a movie that defaults to being tense in the service of being funny, as opposed to being funny in the service of creating tension. This thing is only a few seconds old before it invites us to laugh at the perverse understatement of its title, just as Beau himself is only a few seconds old before his terror begins to seep out of the screen even more powerfully than it pulls us toward it.
Shot in utero through the eyes of Aster’s unborn protagonist, a brief prologue kicks off with a muffled jolt and the sound of his widowed mother screaming in labor at the top of her lungs. Mona Wassermann cries because her baby doesn’t; he’s too busy listening to the pain he caused by coming into this world. Reintroduced in his therapist’s office almost five decades later — now a balding gray schlub who carries himself like a scared little boy who wants to go home in the middle of a sleepover — Beau is so stooped with guilt it seems like he’s still haunted by that first memory.
That lingering effect amounts to both the brilliance and the extent of Phoenix’s deer-in-headlights performance, as the actor — better at rhyming meekness against menace than anyone else alive — is asked to embody a recessive character who only grows more pathetic with almost every scene (there are two clear exceptions to that rule, both of them unforgettable). Phoenix isn’t playing a person so much as a sentient nervous stomach, and he fully recognizes that his job isn’t to articulate Beau’s anxieties so much as it is to be subsumed by them. He anchors this movie like the bulb at the center of a shadow lamp, illuminating the rotating funhouse of different fears that Aster spins around him.
Beau never really travels anywhere besides deeper into his own tortured mind, but the world he inhabits is so violently refracted through his neuroses that his journey from “feckless loser” to “humiliated fool” still feels like the adventure of a lifetime. For much of the film’s giddy opening act, it seems like the guy might never even make it beyond the front door of his apartment building.
Paid for by a portion of the blankest check A24 has ever cut, the lawless city where Beau lives is essentially Marjorie Taylor Greene’s idea of New York. The sidewalks are covered in trash, suicide is a source of public entertainment, and a naked serial killer named “Birthday Boy Stab Man” is randomly shivving people to death in broad daylight. That local street vendors sell AR-15s like they’re knockoff handbags might strike Ms. Greene as more of a feature than a bug, but the guns provide the perfect window dressing for Aster’s funhouse vision of America: a place so driven by id and individualism that codependency almost feels like a sensible defense mechanism.
Life inside Beau’s apartment doesn’t seem any safer or less insane. A casual paper sign pasted on Beau’s door warns that a brown recluse spider is inexplicably loose in the building somewhere, and one of Beau’s neighbors starts making increasingly violent noise complaints despite the fact that Beau lives in monastic silence. That is, until an antidepressant-related mishap causes things to go full “mother!” as the city’s most crazed denizens flood inside like water spilling through a crack in the hull of a submarine.
The madness only starts to make sense when Beau has to call Mona (a little-seen Patti LuPone) and tell her that he actually won’t make it home to celebrate the anniversary of his father’s death. All it takes is one devastatingly passive-aggressive “it’s fine” from Beau’s mom for us to know that it’s not fine at all.
It’s never been fine. Aster isn’t much interested in the psychological nuances of it all — like “Come and See,” “Songs from the Second Floor,” and several of the other films that have left a significant impression on the director, “Beau Is Afraid” obsessively burrows into a black hole of dread that’s deeper than it is wide. But that one phone call is enough to convey that Mona has weaponized Beau’s guilt into a worried sort of impotence. She’s convinced her son that taking any control over his life would be a betrayal of her undivided love for him, and now she’s upset that her middle-aged perma-child is too scared of the world to find his way through it on his own.
Mona is both the source of Beau’s only comfort and the cause of his self-annihilation, but the idea that he may never see her again proves strong enough to push Beau out of his front door… and directly into the path of an oncoming truck. It’s all very Frodo waking up in Rivendell after getting stabbed by the Nazgûl, as Beau comes to in an affluent corner of suburbia where he’s doted upon and infantilized all over again by a pair of overeager parents (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan as Roger and Grace) whose soldier son was killed in combat.
Sporting blue velvet smiles to mask their shared heartache, this eerily generous couple are just the first and most over-extended of several odd characters who Beau will encounter on his bizarre adventure into his own ego. Roger and Grace ring one-note for the amount of time that the movie spends with them, and Denis Ménochet’s kooky drop-in as a fellow houseguest with severe PTSD doesn’t do all that much to help — in part because the fiery indifference of Aster’s compositions tends to be funnier when you feel like you shouldn’t be laughing at it — but this whole section nevertheless lays the groundwork for the rest of Beau’s journey. Either he will find the strength to own his pain, or his pain will continue to own him.
From there, “Beau Is Afraid” becomes a long parade of grotesquely teachable moments, its script flowing along like a children’s story that leads straight to hell. Pawel Pogorzelski’s rich cinematography lends yet another Aster project the patina of a lucid dream, allowing Beau’s adventure is made to feel both real and fantastical all at once. Aster exploits that duality to supreme effect down the home stretch of a movie that provides mythical explanations for Beau’s inherited trauma, the director also leaning on Bobby Krlic’s atonal score and two of the most discombobulatingly hilarious needle drops in recent memory to ensure that viewers remain off-balance even as we begin to gain our bearings. The songs used here shouldn’t be spoiled, so let’s just say that Aster doesn’t let his formal classicism disguise the fact that he’s also an unrepentant ’90s kid (which helps to explain a damning Moviefone reference and Parker Posey’s pitch-perfect casting in a climatic role).
Every subsequent chapter of “Beau Is Afraid” offers a bigger swing than the one before it, but Aster finds his rhythm as he paddles off the deep end, and the movie only grows increasingly cohesive as the tonal shifts — and flashbacks — become more jagged and frequent. A bittersweet and hypnotic interlude that adopts the innocence of an elementary school play gives way to a burst of shocking violence, while a grounded confrontation that feigns at rationalizing Beau’s story pivots directly into the most demented thing that Aster has ever filmed. While the height of his ambitions is beyond question, it’s delightful to discover how low he’s willing to go to reach them.
And yet, with each new masterful sequence and/or singularly demented gag, “Beau Is Afraid” also seems to grow a bit more generic. Aster has always done an immaculate job of interpolating his influences, and “Beau Is Afraid” maintains the spirit of a true original in spite of all that it borrows (the Film Society screening series the director programmed in advance of this movie is an extremely self-aware primer for what fed into making it), but every additional reference highlights how little Beau himself brings to his journey.
While Aster may have conceived the character as a hollow effigy of himself — a protagonist whose only purpose is to be drawn and quartered for almost three full hours, his guilt and gratitude pulling him in opposite directions until it feels like he’s finally going to rip in half — the filmmaker shines such a brilliant light into Beau’s soul that I found myself wishing there was more to see in there. Every wonderfully deranged new detail about Beau’s relationship with his mother left me desperate for a version of this movie that’s closer to hardcore family drama than comic fantasia, which is an awkward takeaway from a film born from such lucid imagination.
But while Beau himself may not prove to be all that memorable, his fear is foisted upon us in a way that makes it impossible to forget. Few movies have ever so boldly explored how fraught the safety of unconditional love can be in such a cruel world, and even fewer — including Aster’s own “Hereditary” — have been so willing to sit with the irreconcilable horrors of trying to share that love with someone else.
An A24 release, “Beau Is Afraid” opens in New York and LA on Friday, April 14 followed by theaters everywhere on Friday, April 21.