The writer-director Ari Aster—who splashed onto the scene with 2018’s grief-horror Hereditary before staging this century’s most disturbingly beautiful breakup in 2019’s Midsommar—has taken a sharp left turn for his third feature, Beau Is Afraid (in theaters April 14). While the film certainly has its scary moments, it’s more of a comedy than a horror film, though its epic sprawl is fretful and unhappy. Aster’s film is singular, while steeped in many influences.
Maybe the closest comparison would be to the work of Charlie Kaufman, that consummate surrealist whose wildest flights of fancy can nonetheless be boiled down to everyday anxieties. Like Kaufman, Aster seems preoccupied with fears of mortality and nettled by his tortured relationships with women, all the while cowed by the vast and messy mechanics of the world. Also like Kaufman, Aster can let his free-wheeling ambition get the best of him.
In Beau Is Afraid, Joaquin Phoenix plays the titular scaredy-cat, a hapless middle-aged man living in a decaying city riven with street violence. All Beau wants to do—or, really, all he’s trying to do—is get out of town to see his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone), whose specter looms over the movie to increasingly suffocating effect. But he’s routinely thwarted on his journey by a kind of cosmic bad luck that will, eventually, be sourced back to his own stifling neuroses. Of course, it’s really Aster’s hand, not the cosmos, guiding all of this. Beau Is Afraid is a movie that opens with a therapy session as a way, perhaps, to indicate that the film itself is an act of analysis for its maker.
Beau’s apartment is taken over and ransacked by a band of vagrants. He receives horrible, gruesome news about his mother and then gets hit by a car. When he wakes up, he’s laid up in the house of a seemingly friendly couple, Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane), who gradually reveal sinister motivations. Beau flees to the woods where he meets a theater troupe and goes on a fantastical journey of (I think?) the mind. And, finally, he reckons with the woman who bore him and who so consistently vexes him, attending to his own tangled psychosexual afflictions in the process.
Read one way, this is a remarkably frank and revelatory film: Aster making manifest his dreadfully active psyche so that we may better understand him. (And, I guess, ourselves.) There’s satire embedded within, a grand hyperbole about Jewish boys and their moms, about the embarrassments of moving through the world as a nebbish frightened by their shadow and everyone else’s. Beau’s hypochondria, those ludicrously violent streets, that smothering gorgon of a mother? They’re all exaggerated to skewer Beau’s, and by extension Aster’s, inane and petty point of view, a confession of mortifying straight-male solipsism (and weakness) that indicts only its target.
Another interpretation is that, in all its ornate self-reference, Beau Is Afraid isn’t that self-aware at all. One could read Beau’s entanglements with women more as confirmation than commentary. Maybe the movie’s depiction of urban hellscapes—eerily similar to those imagined by the right these days—is at least slightly convinced it’s correct. That certainly wouldn’t be a very generous take on the film, but Beau Is Afraid gives us three hours in which to doubt and realign any idea of what it’s trying to say.
It’s a relentless experience, a tumble into dark absurdity that gains more abstraction as it goes. Phoenix is in full dazed, whimpering mode, perhaps my least favorite of his variations. We are not trotting alongside Beau on his trek toward doom or salvation so much as we are dragged behind him. Aster’s past films have their own punishing qualities, but Beau is a new test of patience and endurance. If this film is an act of talk therapy, it’s a scream session, more digressive rant than breakthrough. Lessons are learned by the end of the film, but they arrive as a snickering joke, a pathetic epiphany that in mocking a particular male obsession nonetheless venerates it.
This makes for a frustrating viewing experience. Yet Beau Is Afraid is also full of strange beauty, moments when Aster slows his manic shedding of vanity (and his expression of it) and allows for some poetry. A sincere sadness stalks the film, as it has in all of Aster’s work. It’s hard not to grab onto that, to reach for the frail thing at the center of the film and try to connect. Some of the film’s more harrowing or violent interludes are effective, too; Aster’s eye for spectacle is alluringly shrewd and peculiar. Beau Is Afraid is big, declarative cinema. Irksome (or worse) as some of the film may be, it has a gravitational pull. I stayed seated in the dark, pressed into my chair, until the end credits were done rolling.
The film’s most persuasive case is made by LuPone, a titan of the American stage who tears into a rare big-screen role. I won’t spoil exactly what form she takes in Beau Is Afraid, but when she shows up, the film reverently stops to pay attention. LuPone delivers a towering monologue that does more to cast the film into horror and high drama than do any of Aster’s technical flourishes. It’s in all of LuPone’s histrionics that the film somehow finds its grounding, tethering the wild flail of the film to the human ache and terror that animates it.
Maybe Mona is simply the chief emblem of the movie’s sneaking distrust of women. Or maybe Aster is ceding Beau’s mother (and his own?) all the power. Mona could be the force cracking open the troubling argument of the film to reveal the real, specific squirm of Aster’s intent. Whatever LuPone is doing, it’s undeniable. Here, long into a meandering and fitfully rewarding film, is something worthy of fear—or maybe it’s awe.