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Review: Beau Is Afraid

April 21, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Beau Is Afraid, the wildly ambitious, three-hour-long third film from writer-director Ari Aster, has been described as a “nightmare comedy,” and that’s a pretty apt description for what the filmmaker has cooked up this time around.

I also saw the film last week and am still not entirely sure what to make of it. I was enraptured in places, somewhat exhausted by the end, and left convinced that I needed a second viewing to really solidify my thoughts.

What I do know is that Aster, whose previous two movies were the family drama as supernatural horror Hereditary and daylight horror movie turned breakup revenge fantasy Midsommar, is easily one of today’s most promising young filmmakers, and has already gained enough clout to make whatever he wants.

And with an (unprecedented for them) $35 million budget, indie studio A24 basically wrote him a blank check to make Beau Is Afraid, which amounts to a highly ambitious mix of surrealist fantasy, Oedipal mommy issues melodrama, and full-on Freudian freakout. It’s a film about neuroses that often simulates the experience of having a panic attack in a way that is disturbing, while still being deeply, darkly funny at times (at least for those of us who found Midsommar to be darkly funny as well).

Joaquin Phoenix stars in the film as Beau Wasserman, a middle aged man who is suffering from extreme anxiety. He tells his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) in the opening scene “I’m going to see my mother tomorrow.” The therapist responds by asking if he ever wishes she were dead. And so begins Beau’s odyssey to get home to Mona (Patti LuPone), the classic nagging mother whom he views with a mix of reverence and fear, each phone call from her asking when he is coming providing both comfort and dread.

The film is essentially the journey of Beau trying to go home to see his mother, and it’s an incredibly strange journey that is filled with bizarre setbacks, pitch black comic moments, and traumatic childhood flashbacks. The first act of Aster’s film actually does an incredible job of mimicking the feeling of having an anxiety-induced panic attack, as Phoenix’s reclusive Beau makes his way through a decrepit, crime-riddled city that could very well be Gotham, complete with a naked serial killer on the loose (the nightly news has even named him the Birthday Boy Stab Man).

Every little detail of this world feels richly developed as Beau moves through it in a series of tracking shots, right down to the graffiti on the walls that he passes by and the assault rifles being sold openly on the street. The cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski, who also shot Hereditary and Midsommar for Aster, captures the madness of this world in panoramic shots, including whip pans to show things from Beau’s perspective.

After an unsettling night in his apartment that sets several other mishaps in motion, Beau becomes terrified to even leave his crummy little unit. This entire sequence brilliantly simulates the feeling of experiencing anxiety or OCD. The film is guided by Phoenix, playing Beau as a sort of perma-child who seems to try and shrink before our eyes as he awaits his mother’s approval (observe his body language over an extended scene that remains locked on him while he is on the phone).

The film does lose some momentum in its nightmare sitcom second hour. There is a mid-movie tonal shift involving Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan as a very odd couple whom Beau encounters, and I don’t really know if this sequence entirely fits. It’s during this section that the film does start to drag a bit, and makes us feel the three hour running time. But there are still some wondrous things in store, including a visually immaculate, part-animated dream odyssey around the halfway point that reimagines parts of the film, and a strong last act that dips back into surrealism.

In addition to Phoenix’s excellent performance as Beau, LuPone also delivers some show-stopping moments as his mother, her demeanour oscillating between tender and venomous. Zoe Lister Jones plays Mona in flashbacks, with Armen Nahapetian – an eery dead ringer for a younger Phoenix – as the teenaged Beau. Parker Posey also plays a memorable role in the last act as Elaine, who is somewhat of an old flame.

Aster is trying to make something in the vein of Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch, and this is a big swing from him. The film doesn’t necessarily always work, let alone all together, and it does feel a bit too long at three hours. My first impression, at least, is that I really liked the first act, it lost me slightly in the midsection, but the whole ending was very strong. I need at least another viewing to fully absorb it, but my first impulse is to applaud this sort of unhinged creative vision. It’s consistently intriguing, parts of it are very good, and it feels every bit like the movie that Aster wanted to make.

Beau Is Afraid opens exclusively in theatres on April 21st. It’s being distributed in Canada by Sphere Films.

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