‘Beau Is Afraid’ Is a Divisive and Disorienting Wackjob Head Trip

Full disclosure: I haven’t written full form movie reviews in a while. My work situation changed at the beginning of the year and I haven’t really had time to write about movies in the significant way that brings me joy in some time now. I’ve just scribbled down some thoughts after seeing a movie on Letterboxd and given it a score and there you go, done. But every now and again, you see a film that you really need to work through in the recesses of your own mind. One that you leave feeling truly disoriented, and you have no idea if you loved it or hated it. I truly have no idea what score I would give to this film at this moment in time. Maybe check back with me after I see it again – at this moment the only thing I’m certain of is I would give another three hours of my life to this film – but bear with me as my poor brain trudges through the details of Beau is Afraid.

Ari Aster’s third feature Beau is Afraid follows Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), a man living in an alternate present, a disparate hellscape of a metropolis – a city where there are random dead bodies lying around that no one thinks to move, a world where someone is maniacally dancing to a radio in the middle of the street while people are getting shot around him, a world where a naked homeless man terrorizes strangers around him, and most importantly, a world where our protagonist is terrified to leave his own home. And considering the world around him, he should be! But this isn’t a Covid metaphor or even a metaphor about crime rates in urban areas. Beau is supposed to visit his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death. And he can’t seem to make it there. He doesn’t want to see her, for reasons we learn about as the movie goes on. In true nightmare fashion, obstacles keep getting in Beau’s way, he keeps getting delayed and he keeps getting thrown in a number of different directions and along the way that force him to face his deepest and most fundamental fears, if he wants any shot in hell of making it to the other side of this trauma he’s working through.

I thought a lot as I was watching the movie, does Ari Aster hate women? And of course he doesn’t, look at the roles Toni Collette and Florence Pugh have in Hereditary and Midsommar, respectively. And it’s not just the women in this film that are acting like hysterical maniacs, the men are just as insane if not more so. It’s the concept of the mother, the absence of the father figure and the deep problems this character has with his own mother, the absence of the mother and the controlling nature of her that has shaped the way he sees the world. The character of Beau’s mother is treated like some kind of overpowering, booming godlike figure, whose influence informs every single thing Beau does in his life. And honestly, Beau is such a passive figure in his own life, that his story can seem like a bit of a drag sometimes, because crazy things just keep happening to him, and there is very little he can do about any of it. Beau is a passenger, Beau isn’t even really a leading character. And that can make the proceedings a bit boring, if I’m being honest because it becomes a bit repetitive over this three hour long odyssey.

And really, it’s a miracle Joaquin Phoenix is able to make this character as compelling as he does. He’s giving so much to every moment, because what he’s given in the script isn’t much. I’m not sure if this character is like a conduit for Ari Aster’s own journey dealing with the trauma brought by his own parents, or if this character isn’t autobiographical at all, and it was just a fun idea for a movie he had one day, but all of this feels strangely personal, and the implications of that are not good. It feels like the viewer is eavesdropping on this very strange, very messed up therapy session, and the person at the center of it needs far more help than can be provided in this context. And really, Phoenix is doing the best he can with that, but the way this character is written is not compelling. You are supposed to be rooting for him, or at least rooting for the possibility of what he could become. But since he’s a reactionary presence, he’s a bit of a bore.

We have some great players in the ensemble cast here. Namely the great legend of stage and (now) screen Patti LuPone, as Beau’s mother Mona. The more you learn about her as the film goes on, and the way she finally appears onscreen in the film’s third hour, make up for a lot of the nonsense you had to slog through in the first two hours. She’s giving a very accomplished horror-movie performance, and that’s not exactly what I think of when I think of what Patti LuPone has given us on the Broadway stage. But it’s also not a surprise to me that she had this kind of performance in her. For a character that is discussed and spends the large majority of the runtime offscreen, her presence has to loom over the film significantly, and then when we see her, in whatever context that is, the actress really needs to bring it in the way the role requires. And LuPone is the powerhouse we all know her to be.

Fellow Broadway vet Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan play a couple that take in Beau after a car accident for which they’re responsible. And this whole section of the movie is so weird because of what we learn about this couple as their part of the story progresses, but then it kind of doesn’t go anywhere compelling. Both actors are given some meaty, weirdo material to work with here, but I just wish it amounted to more ultimately. But then again, there’s a bunch of bread crumbs here that inform what we end up seeing later in the film, so maybe this is something that will also play better on a second viewing.

Stephen McKinley Henderson shows up as Beau’s therapist – normally a sign of a film being worth one’s time. He’s a character actor who never gets a ton to do, but he normally knows how to pick ‘em. Maybe he knows something about this one that I still haven’t figured out. Parker Posey shows up in a role I don’t want to give away, and she makes the most of her brief appearance. Richard Kind also shows up at the very end in a role I won’t spoil, and it’s always a pleasure to see him.

In the end, Beau is Afraid is an incredibly well-made wackjob head trip. While it’s thematically repetitive and often feels like an endless journey to nowhere, it’s a visually stunning technical marvel. It’s full of actors who are committing to the bit, but I’m still not entirely sure if the bit works, or what that bit even is. It almost demands you go back and watch it again, this time knowing what you’re in for. And to be fair, I liked Hereditary and Midsommar more on second viewings. Ari Aster has created a bleak, horrific, strange concoction that seems like equal parts nightmare and lullaby. It’s bound to be divisive and it certainly elicited strong reactions in the crowd I saw it with last night. I’m more on the side of “this was brilliant” than “this was a disaster”, but I’m still not totally sure. Go check it out for yourself.

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