'Beau is Afraid' review: Ari Aster's nightmarish acid trip from reality
Courtesy of A24
Ari Aster’s third feature film, a three hour odyssey that puts a fervent spin on the idea of the hero’s journey, “Beau is Afraid” is a major departure from the director’s previous outings: the unforgettable chamber piece “Hereditary,” and the break-up movie from hell, “Midsommar.” In fact, “Beau is Afraid” aligns itself more with the likes of “The Truman Show” and Tennesse Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” than most horror pictures. It’s also very funny, in a dark, morbid, and uneasy type of way as it chronicles the literal trials and tribulations of the main character, Beau Wassermann, a 49-year old virgin with a serious case of mommy issues. One who embarks on a massive ascension into his own troubled mind where every worst case scenario is played out in real time, and he’ll always be a massive inconvenience or disappointment to anyone he encounters. Especially his mother.
Mileage will vary, but the sheer audacity of “Beau is Afraid,” a film unafraid of digging claws into its viewers brains who might check their watch midway through and wonder exactly what the fuck is going on, is how much it fills the frames and holes within our own subconscious. Aster, working with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzeski, goes above and beyond and keeps the screen filled with tiny nuggets (look out for a MovieFone nod). But trying to pick apart the movie's vast easter eggs and subtle narrative breadcrumbs will likely prove futile as the beauty of this three hour acid trip is how unshackled it is to the laws of modern studio moviemaking. You just have to be on its own wavelength. It’s a film that, like “Midsommar” and “Hereditary,” rewards folks as they become more familiar with the inner trappings, and judging by the sheer lunacy Aster cooks up in some of these sequences, you’ll want to revisit this hellscape again and again.
At the center of the whole shebang is Joaquin Phoenix, who Aster laces with varying degrees of manic depravity and high strung anxiety as Beau, a sheltered scrub of a child that’s seemingly trapped inside a grown adult. From the moment we meet him, he’s discussing with his therapist (Stephen Mckinley Henderson) the various forms of guilt he feels for, what’s the basic equivalent of, existing. He’s set to visit his mom (Patti LuPone, in one of those late career roles actors only dream about) on the anniversary of his father’s death, but after he accidentally loses his keys, inside the confines of his decrepit apartment building that’s crawling with poisonous spiders, en route to the airport, the trek to get there becomes increasingly complicated and, uh, mind boggling.
Along the way, he encounters Roger (Nathan Lane) and Grace (Amy Ryan) who take him in after sustaining serious injuries (brought on by a local manic dubbed “The Birthday Stab Man”). But the guilt, shame, and humiliation he feels from disappointing his mother, who was expecting him, makes his brief stay with Roger and Grace all the more hostile. Not to mention their house is a different type of haunted house: wealthy, anglo-saxons with their own issues eager to recalibrate their lives after a tragic loss. Again, in the eyes of Beau, these are just another series of people he must disappoint in order to continue his journey. I am tiptoeing around the miniscule details, like a performative, drug riddled daughter with an inferiority complex and the strange, hulking man who sleeps in the motor home attached to the house. But those moments are best left to discover in real time because it’s, well, bananas.
As the movie becomes more unglued, Aster ratchets up “Beau is Afraid” to dark, introspective levels, but he’s also never been funnier. A pair of needle drops, that will do for their songs what “Us” did to “Good Vibrations,” and “Reservoir Dogs” for “Stuck in the Middle,” keep the uneasiness flowing. Same for Phoenix who must weather this impossible storm of constant paranoia. The movie thrives when the camera plants itself on his facial expression, watching him dissect and understand everything as it is happening around him. Trying to convey these series of emotions while playing a character nobody understands or wants to appreciate is an interesting hurdle Phoenix overcomes, especially during a climatic moment between co-star Parker Posey, equally hysterical in her own way, that had this critic in stitches.
“Beau is Afraid” asks plenty of its audiences in a subliminal and, occasionally, meta type of way, and this after screening the movie once, which is a testament to Aster’s skills as an entertainer. He gives you just enough to wet your beak, but practically dares you to come back for more. In the end, this is a nightmare you can’t escape or wake up from wherein Aster explores what it means to finally be free when you can’t find your way home. It also proves men would rather take a blank check from A24 than go to therapy.
BEAU IS AFRAID opens in wide release Friday, April 21st.