A few years back, writer/director Ari Aster broke the horror mold with his films Hereditary and Midsommar, his Polanski-inspired sense of dread and interest in psychological nuance bolstering a genre that was subsisting on paranormal scares and torture porn. He employs those familiar tropes in his latest horror-comedy, Beau is Afraid, but instead of utilizing restraint, which is his strength, he flings us down a wormhole of Freudian anxiety, nightmarish surrealism, and extreme hyperbole.
Although Aster’s tireless ambition is on display, his slow-burn style is nowhere to be found in the A24 release. Beau is a long, exhausting pilgrimage through one man’s shortcomings ripped straight out of a Philip Roth novel and filtered through Clive Barker’s imagination. It’s a fairy tale rendering of adult hell.
A four-part episodic journey, the movie opens in a birth canal (yep, get ready) where our hero (sort of) Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) sees the world for the first time and is immediately smacked in the ass by a doctor; an implication that it’s all downhill from there. Four decades later, a plump and balding Beau sits in his therapist’s office (a weirdly mild Stephen McKinley Henderson) as he discusses the prospect of visiting his mother that weekend. Although Beau says he’s looking forward to it, he’s obviously discomforted by the mere thought of seeing her.
Before ending the session, Beau’s therapist reminds him to drink water when taking his pills. Apparently, Beau has a bad habit of impulsively swallowing his meds in fits of anxiety and rage, which makes sense since he lives in the worst neighborhood in America. Every trip home involves a life-calculating sprint past knife-wielding psychopaths, dead bodies, and meth-addled zombies. These sequences are so explosively outlandish and deranged, you’d think the entire story exists in Beau’s head, but since Aster never really frames his narrative in that fashion or anchors his audience to a particular world, we’re not sure if this is a subjective reality or purely Beau’s paranoia. No matter. It’s best not to ask too many questions.
Later that day, Beau calls his mother to apologize for missing the flight (Patti Lu Pone in the present, Zoe Lister-Jones in the past), only to discover she died in a chandelier accident. Thus begins his perilous journey back home, which takes the form of a psychotic travelogue plagued by torturous memories of his mother’s narcissism, a first love gone wrong and other splintered aphorisms which are hinted at, but never fully explored.
Soon Beau escapes his neighborhood, which is like Skid Row on acid, and lands in the fluorescently-tinged home of Grace (Amy Ryan), Roger (Nathan Lane), and their tyrannical teenage daughter (Kylie Rogers) after they hit him with their car. There’s also a deranged lodger, Jeeves (Denis Menochet), who lives in a Winnebago in their driveway and suffers from PTSD. This grotesque version of the nuclear family hums with an oddball madness and quiet delirium that would make Todd Solondz proud.
Beau then stumbles in the woodlands where he meets a troupe of actors who put on a play which unfurls like an animated allegory of his life. It’s one of the most visually arresting moments in the film, which also begins to create a discernible subtext for the story, when we’re suddenly ripped out of it by more cartoonish bombast. But that’s Aster’s point: how can we imagine an alternate universe or utopia when our reality is so out of control? This swinging pendulum of philosophical absurdity has its moments, but Aster’s self-awareness is so thick, it borders on embarrassing at times.
The finale takes place in Beau’s childhood home where he encounters every semblance of his trauma, including an ex-girlfriend (a fantastic Parker Posey), his horrible mother, and even a Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion manifestation of his repressed libido. Unfortunately, scenes that should peel back the layers of the story we’ve experienced so far and give us something to consider, see characters slip into long, expository monologues that might make your head hurt. This is by far the longest and most arduous part of the movie, which reveals its major flaw – the writing. Aster seems to think he needs to explain everything ad nauseam, which doesn’t bode well for a three-hour film.
The flashback sequences never give us any insight into Beau’s emotional paralysis. The teenage Beau (Armen Nahapetian) is just as impenetrable and passive as the adult version. The darkly rendered moments which speak to his mother’s villainy and the abuse he suffered at her hands simply land flat. This is where the horror should live, and yet, Aster just keeps slathering on the farce. Yes, it’s a surrealist comedy, but that doesn’t mean the characters can’t have some semblance of relatability. While a filmmaker like Charlie Kaufman, whose inspiration looms large in this film, can effortlessly balance these two poles -the mortal and the surreal- Aster can only get halfway there. He forgot to include the human element.
There’s a lot to admire here, regardless. The performances are incredible, particularly Phoenix, who’s able to peek through Beau’s docile reserve to reveal a genuinely suffering soul. He injects the movie with the compassion the screenplay lacks. For a lengthy film, it has a punctilious and rapid tempo (until the end, which is a slog). Yes, it’s cool to be disconnected and to view the world through a lens of hyperreality (or “multiverse,” as it’s more popularly known), but this shouldn’t lead to sensory exhaustion. Aster has proven himself an interesting purveyor of distress and repression, but with Beau is Afraid he asks us to sit through an extended scream-therapy session instead of genuinely exploring these emotions.
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