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Though the new Beau Is Afraid is only Ari Aster’s third feature, the 36-year-old has fully established himself as a “from the mind of” filmmaker, the kind of idiosyncratic auteur whose movies get marketed on the strength of his name, rather than those of whomever might be appearing in front of the camera. His coffee-table horror flicks Hereditary and Midsommar were critically admired and, because he made them frugally, profitable. With back-to-back hits under his belt, plus the enthusiastic participation of Joaquin Phoenix—not just a fellow critical darling, but a newly bankable one following the billion-dollar haul of 2019’s Joker—Aster is in a position to do whatever he wants. And with Beau Is Afraid, has he ever.
So is the movie any good? What a boring question! There’s something undeniably exhilarating about watching a talent like Aster go as hard as he does in this confounding Oedipal odyssey, even if it would be wrong to characterize the experience in its totality as enjoyable. Everything about this movie sounds like a dare: It spans 179 minutes—four minutes longer than The Batman, for Martha Wayne’s sake! Its jittery pacing, arbitrary introduction, and abandonment of major characters, as well as the rejection of any sort of narrative compass, beyond sheer dream logic, ensure that not a moment of that time is lost to anything like escapism. But it’s spilling over with jokes, all of them funnier and more original than the labored laffs in the comparatively square (and literally half as long) horror-comedy Renfield, released just last week.
Beau Is Afraid will not be remembered for its sensitive and nuanced depiction of mental illness. Whatever the pathology that ails Phoenix’s title character is supposed to be, he experiences his life as an unrelenting parade of violent terrors, and Phoenix—who excels at physical comedy—embraces every opportunity to respond like he’s playing a live-action Homer Simpson. The cruel absurdity of Beau’s world suggests everything we witness is filtered through his terrifying dysfunction: His neighborhood, for example, is like a Fox News viewer’s notion of Chicago, with naked, knife-wielding schizophrenics crowding the sidewalks and corpses lying in the street. (One background player gouges another’s eyes out and the incident goes unremarked.) Signs in the halls of his dingy apartment building warn of deadly brown recluse spiders. The water doesn’t work. One of his neighbors slides increasingly aggrieved messages under his door begging him to keep the noise down though he’s done nothing but lie awake in terrified silence.
Beau Is Afraid is about this man’s visit to his mother’s house, in the same way that Apocalypse Now is about a boat trip. And just like that Joseph Conrad-inspired nightmare journey, Aster’s movie serves up a wild third act dominated by a larger-than-life acting legend: It’s Patti LuPone, as the CEO of some vaguely described megacorporation who instilled in her only son a mortal fear of, well, yes, sex, obviously, but also every other dialect of human intimacy. A series of flashbacks with Zoe Lister–Jones as the 30-something mom of preadolescent Beau offer an answer key for his delusions. The actor playing young Beau in these scenes is 16-year-old Armen Nahapetian, who appears to have been cast because his eerily smooth features evoke Phoenix after a session with a de-aging app that hasn’t been debugged yet.
But before we can even meet young Beau, the middle-aged one has to screw his courage to the sticking place and leave his fleabag apartment, only to be plowed over by a car. This is the first of the film’s many digressions, like rooms in a mansion with an ever-shifting floor plan. Beau wakes up in the care of eerily generous suburbanites (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan), who nurse his wounds and shower him with kindness. Less welcoming is Kylie Rogers as their daughter, who resents Beau’s intrusion and instantly pegs him as her enemy.
Then there’s the whole other passage that finds Beau temporarily adopted by a nomadic, forest-dwelling theater troupe and suddenly ages a few decades. This chapter finds the film at its most visually flamboyant, adopting elements of animation to make things feel even more artificial. And just as it seems we might be heading to a gentler country than the one Aster had seemed bound for, he jerks the wheel back toward Mom’s place, which is where things get really scary.
Like Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, another challenging recent picture that divided critics and was ignored by ticket-buyers, Beau Is Afraid feels like the product of a prodigious young artist who fears he might never be allowed to make another film. It’s unruly, undisciplined, and frequently unpleasant. It is also, as I’ve said, exhilarating. Your knee-jerk sense of whether this represents a good investment of your irreplaceable time and sanity is probably reliable. Listen to your heart. Or if you dare, call your mom.
Beau Is Afraid opens today, April 21, at local theaters.