At first blush, Beau Is Afraid— the third feature from writer/director Ari Aster—is radically different from his previous works. Hereditary and Midsommar can both be more neatly classified as horror, while his three hour epic Beau Is Afraid can perhaps most succinctly be boiled down to an absurdist interpretation of the hero’s journey. But there’s nothing succinct about Beau Is Afraid, despite its straightforward title that suggests otherwise; not its runtime, nor its plot, which—although it is divided into distinct acts—is less a puzzle to be solved, and more a serious of bizarre occurrences that it’s best for the viewer to just let wash over them, much the same way the film’s perpetually anxiety-riddled protagonist does (if the word “active” can be applied to him at all, it’s in the way he frequently attempts to dissociate any time all hell breaks loose around him).
But while Beau Is Afraid isn’t a horror movie, it is often horrific, and the seeds of its story are present in Aster’s previous films, hitting familiar beats relating to family drama and toxic relationships. When we first meet Beau (played by Joaquin Phoenix) following a quick intro depicting his birth and how he was so scared of exiting the womb in the first place he couldn’t even cry, he’s a paunchy, middle-aged man living alone in a crummy apartment in a city ravaged by comically over-the-top crime. It’s no wonder Beau is afraid of everything: violence (when his keys get stolen out of his door he’s afraid to leave for fear that all the depraved individuals lurking outside will come in); his health (when he realizes he has taken his medication without water when it is intended to only be taken with it he spirals into a manic mini-quest to find some water); sex (we later find out that his father died conceiving him, and that his grandfather and great-grandfathers hearts also gave out during climax, prompting Beau to believe that the same thing will happen to him). And all of those fears can be traced back to the thing that seems to be plaguing him most of all: his mother.
Through a conversation with his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), we discover that Beau is preparing to visit his mother Mona (played in flashbacks by Zoe Lister-Jones and by Patti LuPone in the present day) for the anniversary of his father’s death. But events conspire that cause Beau to miss his flight; on the phone, Mona expresses abject disappointment in him. When Beau calls her again later, an familiar voice picks up. It’s a delivery driver (Bill Hader in an amusing vocal cameo) who discovered Mona’s body, decapitated when a chandelier fell on her. Beau is later informed by her lawyer that, in keeping with Jewish tradition, she cannot be buried until he is present at her funeral.
That rather long-winded setup is just to kickoff to Beau’s quest to get to his mom’s house, and, like most hero’s journeys, obstacles are thrown at him at every turn, from a vaguely threatening suburban couple (Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane) who take in Beau after the wife hits him with her car, a traveling theater troupe who perform a play that allows Beau to envision an alternate version of his life, and a reunion with Elaine (Parker Posey, who has the film’s best and funniest scene), his childhood crush from a beach vacation who is revealed in earlier recurring flashbacks. But what’s real and what’s imagined, whether everything that we see is a manifestation of Beau’s many fears or if everyone and everything around him really is conspiring against him, is always in question. The film operates on a kind of dream logic, where nothing makes sense and yet everything seems to be happening for a reason, as some of the film’s reveals in its final act call back incidents from earlier in the movie. The many layers and clues present both in the background and at the forefront of the film raise more questions than they answer, and it’s fascinating enough to make the movie worth revisiting just to catch them all, as grueling an experience as it often is.
But that’s the thing: Beau Is Afraid, while it is Aster’s funniest film by far, is really only enjoyable in spurts. The movie exhibits about as much love for Beau as the characters he interacts with throughout the film do, which is to say very little. Aster isn’t doing anything particularly effective with the epic structure either, outside of making it clear that he has read The Odyssey. It’s most intriguing to consider the narrative from the angle of a reverse hero’s journey, where instead of overcoming challenges to return home and receive his reward, Beau fails at every turn, sinking deeper into his confused and anxious state, his return home punishing him for his perceived failures instead of rewarding or even comforting him. But every act of the film is too repetitive, with Beau entering into what appears to be a safe situation, only for everyone around him to turn against him. The narrative spins its wheels instead of propelling us—and Beau—toward a finite conclusion, wallowing in his misery without pulling any meaning out of his various encounters. I hesitate to call Beau Is Afraid messy, even though it sort of is, but Aster connects enough dots to make it clear that he isn’t merely throwing a lot of ideas at a wall and seeing what sticks. The glimpses of intriguing roads he could have traveled down, however, such as the way the capitalist system Mona—a powerful businesswoman who used Beau in ad campaigns as a child—is a participant in chews up the innocent until they have little autonomy left, remain little more than glimpses to briefly consider before Aster zips along to the next nightmare.
Visually, Beau Is Afraid is just as distinct as Aster’s previous features, from the painterly sets and animation of the play interlude to some, let’s just say, extremely phallic imagery that comes into play during the climax. And Aster draws good performances from his cast. Phoenix is adept at conveying Beau’s perpetual jittery-ness, although the fact that his fears are manifested so intensely on the outside that it’s sometimes hard to get a sense of the character’s interiority contributes to the exhausting nature of the film. Posey and a deliciously tyrannical LuPone are the movie’s MVPs, the subjects of its most memorable scenes. But for all the things that works in it, there is too much shallow chaos for the film to come together cohesively, to feel like much more than a movie about a loser with mommy issues whose sole purpose is to prove just what a loser he is.
Beau Is Afraid is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 179 minutes. Rated R.