2023 | rated R | starring Joaquin Phoenix, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Patti LuPone, Zoe Lister-Jones, Parker Posey | written & directed by Ari Aster | 3h |
Beau is afraid of a lot of things. Sex, his mother, the outside world. All with good reason as we’ll see in Ari Aster’s high anxiety comedy Beau is Afraid. A deftly sketched film of wobbly tones that move from slapstick comedy to full-blown psycho horror constantly threatening to collapse, but never quite does. Beau feels like Aster charging his success and capital against the A24 company credit card. After blowing the doors off his debut with the excellent Hereditary and becoming a divisive viral meme with Midsommer, he spends that capital with a Kitchen Sink passion project bound to appeal to a limited audience. This is the type of thing that can doom or elevate auteurs. Richard Kelly spent his good will from Donnie Darko to make the bonkers apocalyptic satire Southland Tales and destroyed his career. Zach Snyder turned 300 into Sucker Punch. Gore Verbinski rode Pirates of the Caribbean to A Cure for Wellness. Yet, you also have filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson who rolled Boogie Nights into Magnolia. All these passion projects have several things in common. They are indulgent, overly long, weird, messy, ambitious and not for the average movie-goer. Fortunately, Beau isn’t Southland Tales. It’s a film that breaks Aster out of the horror genre, if only from full blown horror to psychologically disturbing.
Joaquin Phoenix is expectedly terrific as Beau, a loser, imprisoned by his own crippling fear to stand up to anything and a world around him constantly attacking him – often quite literally. Where nowhere is safe, not his bedroom, not his bathtub, not the home of a kind stranger that takes him in and nurses him to help. The inciting incident here is hilariously simple. Beau needs to get home to his mother (Patti LuPone and Zoe Lister-Jones), but after a sleepless night takes one of his anxiety pills without water. This sets off a chain of events, absurd, violent, epic and increasingly surreal as Beau travels across the country to get to his mother. Encountering one vignette and colorful, if suspicious character, along the way. We meet the overly nice Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane) who take him in, a recovery threatened by their jealous daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers) and the traumatized war vet living in the driveway. Everyone around Beau wants something from him, threatens him or stares him down through a window and Aster spends 3 hours putting us in his state of miserable, increasingly hallucinatory anxiety.
If Hereditary used a ghost story curse to tell the story of people trapped by life in a fateful cycle of doom, Beau does that literally, with a comic Kafka-esque sense of absurdity the movie sends Beau on a modern adventure full of domestic horrors. While it moves at a leisurely pace it also doesn’t feel episodic, as these movies tend to do. This despite it being built around 4 large set pieces and woven through with childhood flashbacks and, at one point, an animated sequence and a Wes Anderson-esque play. Aster, a master world builder, puts a movie’s worth of detail into each part creating something that feels lived-in amid the frothy cocktail of bum fights, paint drinking, killer chandeliers, adolescent crushes and sex anxiety. This thing could have so easily been a disaster, but Aster maintains total command over the film, allowing it to explode into bouts of chaos but keeping the plot moving along smoothly.
Beau himself is frustratingly inert as a character, a trait he shares with a lot of traditional horror protagonists who let cowardice and inaction seal their fate. In this case, it’s all part of Aster’s master plan to tease us into the dark recesses of his lead’s mind and bolt the door behind us. I was down for it at every step, mostly because of Phoenix’s performance (he spends most of the film in his pajamas) and to see what new horror would spring from Aster’s endlessly inventive mind.
The first act of the film is laugh-out-loud funny. It thrives on chaos and awkwardness and is masterful all around. The 2nd is eerie, the third is fantastical and the final is a slow-dipped head-trip. Much like this year’s Oppenheimer, Beau is 3 hours and climaxes at the 2 hour mark. And much like Oppenheimer, that final hour drags into full blown paranoia and the outsized ambition of filmmaking indulgence. The first 2 hours of his movie might be my favorite put on film this year. The third act throws cold water on the adventure and starts to chip away at all the good will the film had built up, threatening to turn into heady self parody. It’s not as marvelous as what came before, but at least it doesn’t completely destroy the experience. Even in it’s final act, when it’s gone completely off the rails, I still admired that a movie like this can still get made.
Beau is Afraid is a beautifully crafted, precisely-tuned genre blender that’s notes waft between comedy and nightmare, at once hilarious, ironic and cruel. It’s epic just for the sake of it and defies a simple description, denying formula entirely and creating it’s own world with each new detail and revelation. It’s challenging for the audience, funny, eerie and requires a lot from all of it’s performers. Everything here is heightened to theatricality, but played with a straight face. Some will find it a misery-porn stress factory, others, a hyper-stylized submersion in an unfair world that finally speaks to them. It might not be perfect, it might overstay it’s welcome just a tad and might have the need for it’s own existence debated for years to come. It also might be my favorite movie so far this year.