It might be hard to sell Beau is Afraid as Ari Aster’s weirdest film to date. He’s already made surreal nightmares with Hereditary and Midsommer, horror films with so much to munch on with their dark twists so bizarre you almost have to laugh. This film is in the same realm but becomes so absurdly cerebral that it’s an unpredictable voyage. It’s also one of his more expensive films considering the cast, set pieces, and visual effects. It’s reassuring that Aster doesn’t skimp on the surreal when granted a larger budget, crafting a film that feels uncomfortably odd and grandly epic.
The titular Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is portrayed as a pitiful soul. He resides in an apartment on the worst side of town, home to dangerous individuals like the naked slasher and the tattooed man who chases him. He attends therapy, where he is prescribed pills with specific instructions that he fears missing. But his biggest worry is his homecoming, visiting his mother on his dad’s death anniversary. Having never grown up, constantly living under his mother’s thumb, it will be an awkward reunion for Beau.
Saying nothing goes right for Beau would be an understatement. The entire block ransacks his apartment, he’s stabbed by a serial killer and finds himself losing track of dates, missing his flight. And all of this is before he even leaves the block. It only gets weirder from there, and it’s already a bizarre world he occupies, featuring such ludicrous background details of odd sex shops and TV dinners assembled as an Italian/Hawaiian fusion. What follows is a surreal odyssey of a man fearing the entire world and being offered no escape from those abusing him in more ways than one.
Watching Aster stage such an uncomfortable picture feels more cathartic because it appears over-the-top in stressing a cruel world. Beau has lost so much control of this world that even the most level-headed would still be unable to handle it all. I could feel myself being on edge when his luggage was stolen, and there was no water in his apartment. The concerns grow more internal as Beau’s fester in more significant issues of existentialism and the sick feeling of life denied. He tries and fails to come to terms with this while everybody on his journey seems to take advantage of him somehow.
Doubt and distrust grow from the most unlikely of places. One stop on his travels is to a home run by a quirky surgeon (Nathan Lane) and his critical wife (Amy Ryan). They habitually take in damaged people but do little to hear them or repair their more significant damage. Their questionable devotion breeds such terrifying figures as the bullying teenager Toni (Kylie Rogers) and the violent veteran Jeeves (Denis Ménochet). Such a situation demands that Beau take some agency, but even that escape does little to offer him some comfort. The cruel world still finds a way to kick him down again.
The paranoia can be felt in nearly every scene loaded with unexpected developments. I felt as helpless as Beau, struggling to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense, where every signage appears straight out of a Simpsons episode. Slowly, the film reveals Beau’s troubled past and the toxic relationship with his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone). There’s no escaping from this woman, even when Beau remains patient in awaiting his kid crush, Elaine (Parker Posey), to return. It always feels like Beau is just one victory away from turning his life around. And with every step forward, there are six gut-wrenching steps back.
So many sad scenes display how much love Beau is denied. None are more depressing than the aside in a forest where he witnesses a play and imagines an ideal life for himself. His imagination concocts a storybook fantasy of him finally meeting a woman and having a family. But even in that fantasy, the darkness creeps in, denying him happiness. This is a man whose mind is so bruised by years of trauma that even his imagination won’t allow for the happy ending he desires. No peace awaits this man, constantly attacked and begging for help on deaf ears.
There’s an unrelenting chaos to this picture that makes it such an intoxicating adventure. Phoenix delivers an excellent performance for feeling trapped in all of this, looking like an aged man but reacting to everything with the terror of a small child. It brings about a lingering thought about how late it might be for happiness when time passes with little change. His world is a damning place that brings such shocking terrors, with his family being the most terrifying presence of all. The climax brings about some of the most warped and unforgettable imagery, from the creepy secret in the attic to the chilling final shot that will haunt me for days.
There’s good reason to be as afraid as Beau on this dark journey home that is a nightmarish experience that creeps under the skin and breeds desperate laughter. It’d be easy to label this film as unkindly vicious in how its protagonist never once catches a break. And yet it becomes a relatable experience for trying to come to terms with the fact that we are born in messed up ways and die with cold helplessness. So you might as well laugh at the ridiculousness along the way so that life is more than just a bitch before the clock runs out. Few films ever feel this deep with contemplating these complexities while appreciating the strangeness that throws a phallic monster into the mix. Only Aster could conceive of a movie this emotionally meditative yet uproariously irreverent.