‘Beau Is Afraid’ Review: Ari Aster’s Stunning, Unknowable and Fearless Opus

Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of his best performances as a guilt-ridden man on an epic journey

Beau is Afraid

There is a brief scene in the arresting and spectacular “Beau is Afraid,” Ari Aster’s fearless, labyrinthine and wickedly immersive third feature, when the ink of an uncooperative pen runs out as the film’s hypersensitive protagonist tries to scribble “love”. It’s both a hilarious moment and a heartbreaking one in a bottomless film overflowing with similar emotional gulfs, with sadness and laughter erupting frequently, often within the same instant.

The scene is funny because, by the time it arrives, we have already learned a great deal about the misfortunes of Beau, played with a startling level of vulnerability by a soft-spoken, gloomy-eyed Joaquin Phoenix, both enigmatic and translucently bare.

At this point, we know that Beau is haunted by mommy issues, like many an Ari Aster character before him across modern horror classics “Hereditary” and “Midsommar.” He is so haunted and guilt-ridden that his upcoming trip to visit his overbearing mommy dearest—the would-be recipient of that love—requires a dedicated session with his blunt therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who abruptly asks Beau, “Do you wish she was dead?” (Of course he doesn’t. Or so he says.)

And that same scene is soul-crushingly sad because the poor guy who worries about everything—from accidentally swallowing a little mouthwash to a stray spider terrorizing his derelict building—can’t even get a word as simple as “love” out at first try. Everything is laborious in Beau’s trapped life. And how could it not be? When he’s been put through both the emotional and physical wringer since birth, a near-anarchic episode that sets “Beau is Afraid” in motion?

While that opening birth sequence is purposely blurry with indistinct sounds—are those flashlights, firecrackers, guns or screams that we perceive in the background?—what follows in this bizarre stunner is anything but. Swiftly, we are pulled into Beau’s immaculately realized present-tense world accompanied by a Bach Suite, where chaos, murder and grime run amok in alarming doses. Beau’s universe seems like an alternate reflection of our own world, represented in an unnamed “Drop Dead”-adjacent city, infiltrated by all the ills of capitalism.

Look around and you’ll see countless made-up and freshly designed storefronts, posters and products here—so plentiful, ingenious and hysterically titled that production designer Fiona Crombie is bound to make even Wes Anderson jealous with her uncompromising sense of place. It is in this city of pill poppers and maniacal killers that Beau has been planning his trip to mom’s, while a harasser in his building keeps agitating him with triggering messages. Just when he thinks he can safely get out, stolen keys and misplaced luggage delays Beau’s trip, and then the worst news arrives.

Since “Beau is Afraid” is what happens during an epically long, Homeric odyssey to a funeral, it won’t be a spoiler to reveal that before Beau can even get out of town, his mother dies. (She is played by the sensational Patti LuPone and an enchanting Zoe Lister-Jones at different eras.) A freak chandelier accident, he is told; one that smashed his mother’s head and killed her on the spot. (Yes, smashed heads is another Aster mainstay and in “Beau,” there are many.) Heartbroken and overcome with remorse, Beau leaves for the funeral only to fall victim to an accident himself on the heels of a frenzied incident.

If you think everything thus far sounds way too weird, allow me to gently break that “Beau is Afraid” gets even stranger, hazier and more mystical from here on out, and this is by all means the highest possible compliment. After obtaining the audience’s complete buy-in through an impeccably visualized, fast-moving first chapter, full of Fincher-esque hallways and studious ‘70s-cinema grit, Aster gradually dials up the weirdness of his imagination and slows things down considerably with every segment that follows it.

Ultimately, his chaptered opus culminates in a movie—and it is a lot of big-screen-event movie—that begs to be revisited, dissected, discussed and reconsidered over time. In that regard, “Beau is Afraid” is both great art and a great artifact. Prophetically speaking, few cinematic experiences this year will measure up to following Phoenix on his epic quest as he spills his guts and (prosthetic) nuts on the screen, in front of repeat Aster DP Pawel Pogorzelski’s psychedelic lens.

The following segments involve a mischievously posh suburban home, a mysterious theater collective made up of orphans, an animated segment (more on this later), a vivid plunge into a childhood memory on a cruise ship and a sexual encounter with an old friend. The aforementioned classy home is haunted by the memory of a deceased son, and occupied by his parents Roger and Grace—played, stupendously, by Nathan Lane with his signature skeptical grin and a cavernous Amy Ryan, respectively—as well as their druggy daughter Toni (a raging Kylie Rogers, who tears through one of the film’s most memorable scenes).

Instantly, this section feels like the film’s most Aster-ian effort, if you will. Tensions brew amid four-walls and around dining tables—settings deeply familiar to the filmmaker—as this cagey couple and their peculiar offspring in eerily matching pajama sets politely keep a distraught (and very afraid) Beau captive. For whatever reason.

His encounter with the stage troop gets even trippier, exquisitely branching out to the above-said animation—signifying a journey into Beau’s psyche—and a childhood memory of a summertime romance cut way too short by mommy (Armen Nahapetian is ingeniously cast as the young Beau). For the animated segment, Aster works with the Chilean duo Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León of “The Wolf House,” creating a phantasmagoric fragment, both in step with the film’s sensory style and a little outside of it. When Parkey Posey arrives in the form of the old friend Elaine she bursts open Beau’s clogged erotic artery with the backdrop of perhaps the funniest-ever use of a Mariah Carey tune.

Aster’s own mom, an accomplished poet, once wrote, “My memories are clumped together into a bundle of constantly interacting fibers, growing increasingly nebulous as they reach out to an outside view.” This line might be both the perfect entry point to “Beau is Afraid” and a meditative finish to it after experiencing it. It’s an extraordinary and deliciously demented study of a tortured soul of clumped memories. At it’s core, it’s surprisingly approachable. After all, Beau is just a guy trying to be whole and unburdened for the first time in his life, free of his family’s past crimes and ingrained fault lines. Aren’t all of us on that secretly hopeful journey, too?

Admittedly, it’s all a bit much, an exercise in familial grief, inherited burdens and compressed feelings of guilt, but that excess is entirely the point of Aster’s longest and most ambitious film to date. It is that excess of a little “Truman Show,” a little Greek Mythology, a little Kafka and whole lot of Freud that hypnotizes and disarms you before his extravagance, while inexplicably inviting you to do it all over again.