Beau Is Afraid

Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) is a middle-aged man whose mother Mona (Patti LuPone, Zoe Lister-Jones in flashbacks) is expecting him to fly out to see her to mark the anniversary of his father’s death.   Ridden with anxieties, he has already discussed the trip with his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), but it seems like the world is conspiring against him making it to the airport in time and “Beau Is Afraid.”

Laura's Review: B

Writer/director Ari Aster ("Hereditary," "Midsommar") was wise to pursue Joaquin Phoenix as the paranoid protagonist of his Freudian odyssey of maternal Jewish guilt tripping, the actor the perfect victim of the filmmaker’s gleeful cinematic torture.  The film, with its 3 hour running time, is ambitious, its first hour its most outrageously entertaining; its second a mix of found family comedy, time-tripping and theatrical, Biblical fantasy; its themes wrapped up in its psychosexual third. 

‘Why isn’t he crying?’ we hear faintly in the background as we experience the glare Beau is subjected to as he makes his way out of the birth canal.  The man we meet in his therapist’s office is barely articulate, a look of bewildered fear his settled expression, shocked denial greeting the doctor’s suggestion that he might just wish his mother dead.  His anxieties are made manifest as he attempts to go home, his apartment located in a graffiti-ridden urban area which must be traversed like a war zone, the victims of the Birthday Boy Stab Man (a nude Bradley Fisher) littering the streets, a tattooed fiend chasing him right up to his building’s front door.

Beau’s terrifying assault doesn’t end there, however.  He gets no sleep as an unseen neighbor pushes messages beneath his door hourly complaining about the loud music which is actually coming from next door.  When he checks the hallway, his apartment keys are stolen from his door and a phone call to mother seeking advice yields nothing but implied disapproval.  Beau panics after downing anxiety medication which states it ‘must be taken with water’ when his tap refuses to produce.  Sprinting across the street to buy a bottle, he watches in horror as the entire street streams into his apartment, the final squatter removing his door prop and locking him out.  When he finally regains entry to his thoroughly trashed living space, a phone call to mom is answered by a delivery man (voice of Bill Hader) with very disturbing news about a headless woman on the floor.  Beau retreats into a hot bath and what transpires may just be the film’s best scene.  Suffice to say, it results in Beau running into the street stark naked where he is immediately mistaken for that Birthday Boy Stab Man by a cop and hit by a car during the standoff.  Whew!

Aster transitions from one set piece to the next throughout his film via Beau’s bouts of unconsciousness.  He comes to in the fussy pink bedroom of a teenaged girl, a call button taped to his hand.  The comforting Grace (Amy Ryan) checks in, informing him that she and her surgeon husband Roger (Nathan Lane) were the ones who hit him, that he had also been stabbed, but that he was healing quickly under Roger’s care.  This strange adoptive family includes their resentful daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers) and the psychotic, PTSD-addled Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), who served with Grace and Roger’s revered son Nathan, lost in combat yet preserved in a jigsaw puzzle.  It will be the cheerful Roger who first notes Beau’s extended testicles, the genetic issue we will see Mona tell him killed his father when he was conceived and which now demand his virginity (a scenario comparable to a black widow, a spider outbreak having been another of Beau’s apartment woes).  Meanwhile Beau is now caught between Roger’s delayed promises to drive him to his mother’s funeral and her lawyer’s barbs about his humiliation of her.  When he is unjustly targeted in Toni’s rebellion, Grace turns on him and Jeeves attacks, Beau running through the woods where he’ll knock himself out running into a tree limb.

Coming to in the present, Beau tells the very pregnant Penelope (Hayley Squires) he is lost and needs help and is led to the encampment of the Orphans of the Woods, a traveling theatrical troupe who stage a rural, domestic version of his life as he watches in the audience.  Yet even here Beau is not safe, a vast flood wrecking havoc with his doppelganger, Beau wandering in search of his family through old age, yet questioned on the veracity of his ability to sire the three adult sons he is reunited with.  Which leads us into the film’s last act, a nightmare of betrayal and unrecognized justification of his own perspective ignited by Beau’s reunion with Elaine (Parker Posey), the rebellious girl (Julia Antonelli) we saw his teenaged self (Armen Nahapetian) meet on a cruise ship as both traveled with controlling mothers and vow to wait for after they kissed.

In addition to the themes in Aster’s first two films (“Hereditary’s” plotting mother, decapitation and horrors in the attic; “Midsommar’s” horrible parental death relayed by a phone call from a stranger, rural rituals and drug use), one can see the influence of such films as “A Serious Man,” “The Truman Show,” “Defending Your Life” and numerous monstrous mother movies.  Aster has shown himself to be a master of architectural spaces and production designer Fiona Crombie creates something different for each act, contrasting the cramped and creepy corridors of Beau’s apartment building with the open, airiness of Grace and Roger’s home and making mother’s bed central on both that cruise ship and in her home.  After stepping through the Orphans’ stage’s proscenium arch, an entire artificial world unfurls around Beau, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski placing us within it alongside him.  Pogorzelski’s camera races beside Beau as he zigzags around obstacles, crashes through doors and wanders in a daze, observing him from a high overhead angle in the present, past and future on a mysterious television channel in Grace and Roger’s home.  Music by "Midsommar's" The Haxan Cloak features the female voice as instrument.         

Phoenix is supported by a well cast ensemble, Henderson a reassuring presence, the three central mothers, Ryan, Lister-Jones and LuPone, all layering in unsettling undertones, LuPone’s escalating into a gorgonesque crescendo.  Aster’s magnum opus     may be overstuffed with ideas and at a loss for a satisfying punch line, but “Beau Is Afraid” is nothing if not a horrifically funny and amusingly terrifying psychological journey.

A24 released "Beau Is Afraid" in select theaters on 4/14/21.  It goes wide on 4/21/23.