As inscrutable as it is obvious, “Beau Is Afraid” is going to flat-out repel some people. Mostly moms… But dads too, as my father saw the preview, turned to me, and said “That looks like eight different movies, and I don’t want to see any of them.” Fair. Very fair, dad.
Writer/director Ari Aster has quickly become his own brand, despite only helming two major theatrical releases. That’s because those were “Hereditary” and “Midsommar.” Having Toni Collette and Florence Pugh headline flicks that trip the light fantastic between comedy and horror certainly helped position Aster as a weirdo-bonkers genius. This time out, we get Joaquin Phoenix and literally every bit of mamma drama any Freudian fetishist could ever want.
The original script for “Beau Is Afraid” apparently predates Aster’s previous films. It feels like it. While his prior works were taut explorations of trauma and torment with broad appeal, this one is almost upsettingly personal. Technically, everyone has a mother, so it isn’t exclusionary there. This satirical purple nurpling of the epic journey doesn’t just bludgeon the hero in his thousand faces, it opens Aster up to the kind of simplistic criticism that’s too easy for many to resist. You can find countless “takes” disregarding this confessional Homeric poem as “cringey” or a sign that Aster should just “go to therapy.” Not liking it is fine. Understandable. Maybe even the “right” reaction. But dismissing it is amateur hour.
“Beau Is Afraid” is wickedly hilarious and mean-spirited, albeit unnecessarily bloated. It’s not even that complicated to explain, despite claims that it is wholly indecipherable. It’s just the story of a broken man-child completely controlled by a fear of everything, and we are given his perspective, in which he is absolutely right to be terrified. The first arc sees Beau (Phoenix) living in a dystopian urban hellscape. It’s basically every political attack ad about crime come to life. His apartment keys are stolen, meaning he can’t make his flight back home to see mommy. She does not take the disappointment of his canceled visit well.
He’s then stabbed by a naked serial killer, hit by a car, and forcibly adopted by the folks that ran him over. Grace (Amy Ryan) and her husband, Roger (Nathan Lane), lost their son in a military conflict. They realize stealing a middle-aged man to replace their dead boy is a bad look, but they do it anyway. Beau has to escape though, because he’s told his mom has been decapitated. He then stumbles into an interlude that features a weird half-animated fable before confronting his one-and-only love, a childhood sweetheart he knew for only a day or two named Elaine (Parker Posey). But his mom always told him that, if he has sex, he’ll die like his dad did. The final act is him stumbling into his destiny, erection first. Oh, and Patti LuPone plays his mom.
The absolute best part of “Beau Is Afraid” is doing the homework necessary to understand it. If that’s a turnoff, it makes total sense. But parsing the symbolism is the fun, if you’re so inclined. You can even compose a somewhat believable literal take, in which the whole thing is a “Truman Show”-style psychological torture chamber. Every minor and major moment, from Beau’s bodega trip to Grace’s blue-lipped grief growl, can be unpacked in ways that will exhaust and infuriate some or excite and entice others. I’m team “Excited and Enticed,” but you knew that, didn’t you?
The fact that Beau is an absolutely dysfunctional human being specifically because of his mother’s lies and manipulations is obvious. Whether he had any responsibility to show even the slightest bit of courage or take the smallest amount of control is much more complicated. The film definitively judges Beau for his failures while also positioning his mom as an explicit “dragon.” His dad is shown to be something worse, if that helps? Phoenix is a perfect punching bag, while LuPone is a transcendent tyrant. Who would expect anything less?
The interlude feels like a mistake, tacking extra girth to the already double-wide length. It’s beautiful to look at, yes, but it is also a redundant and extraneous pace-killer. Other than that, “Beau Is Afraid” is the funny-sad, gross-gorgeous, obvious-dense oxymoron it billed itself to be. Give me this self-flagellating nightmare that descends into abstract madness a thousand times over before yet-another tepid adaptation that leverages “intellectual property” of whatever household product a mega-corp wants to promote. I’d rather see Ari Aster beat himself up and work through his mommy issues than watch “Kleenex: The Movie” or whatever is next. My dad wouldn’t though…
Grade = A-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Sheraz Farooqi at CinemaDebate says “By the end, it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction, reality from an anxiety-ridden dream. Aster was a bit overindulgent with the three-hour run time, but it mostly worked.”
Wenlei Ma at News.Com.Au says “To cast conventional judgment on a film that is indiscernible makes it challenging to consider – what is it you’re actually writing about if the most overwhelming impression it makes is utter bewilderment?”
Andrea Thompson at Wealth of Geeks says “If you don’t share an identity with Phoenix or Aster, chances are you’ll be too exhausted to care once Beau must face a white man’s ultimate fear – cancellation. Everyone is all in, and the scope of their talent is enough to make some moments enjoyable, but many of us have better things to worry about.”