Did you ever hear the one about the boy who feared his mother? “Beau Is Afraid” tells this joke for three gobsmacking, sometimes exhausting, always beguiling hours. At the center is a fascinating performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who actualizes what it looks like for a boy to suddenly stop growing up and merely age into a graying body. Phoenix makes his mouth tiny as if he were still suckling, and his voice intensely frail. His eyes, often used to signal a primal nature, have never seen looked so soft. His character will prove to be far too innocent for this world. The story that unfolds is Beau’s nightmare and his destiny.
The film’s writer/director is Ari Aster, who has always been a funny guy. His excellent, trauma-filled dramas “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” may be packed with the horror of relationships, but it’s the cruel joke underneath that provides their driving force–they are pitch-black comedies about the universal fear of losing free-will, of being screwed from the get-go. “Beau Is Afraid,” an enveloping fantasy laced with mommy issues, is about being doomed from birth. It’s Aster’s funniest movie yet.
Beau is a quintessential Aster protagonist, barely making it in a hellish landscape that’s lovingly detailed by Aster and production designer Fiona Crombie. The downtown neighborhood where Beau lives is defined by violence and madness: People fight in the middle of the street, they threaten to jump off buildings, and dead bodies lie about. It’s a Busby Berkeley musical, with death and destruction as the choreography. Working with long-time collaborator Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster surveys this sumptuous chaos like Peter Greenaway did long dining tables in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.” Here, such tracking shots gorgeously capture a sick sad world eating itself alive in broad daylight.
This world-building for Beau is like a furious overture of the towering anxieties we’ll see later in present-time and in flashback: a lack of personal space, the threat of being unable to please others, and the impossibility of rampant bad luck. Embracing his ruthless sense of humor, Aster sucks you in with each absurd, claustrophobic development, like when an angry neighbor keeps sliding him notes to turn the volume down, even though he’s sitting in silence. It’s a punchy, rollicking first act in a laugh-to-keep-from-screaming way, and it establishes a rhythm with dread that the movie is not precious about keeping. Nothing will be as smooth from here on out; inconsistency can prove disorienting.
The most daunting moments in Beau’s life are his phone calls from his mother, Mona Wassermann, her initials stamped on a fancy logo that can be seen on nearly every item in his dilapidated apartment. Played over the phone with exquisite venom by Patti LuPone, the mega-successful Mona creates immense, unsettling tension by making Beau feel even smaller. Aster’s gutting dialogue shines (“I trust you’ll do the right thing,” says Mom). The guilt, shame, and humiliation, it’s all packed into a phone call after he accidentally misses his flight to see her (it’s a long story). He does not have free will but a lived-in need not to disappoint his mother. Phoenix’s best moments in this movie are his long close-ups when he’s on the phone, struggling to keep everything together, especially when he later hears some awful news about his mother.
“Beau Is Afraid” is told in chapters of various length and tone, in which Beau experiences a fluctuating sense of security. After a meltdown that has him screaming and running naked in the streets, Beau finds himself severely injured and under the care of two parents in the suburbs (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan), who cover their own pain with just enough smiles as they care for him and feed him pills. Beau needs to go see his mother, and they’ll help him do that tomorrow. Beau has become a type of replacement son for their departed soldier boy Nathan and finds a new enemy in Toni (Kylie Rogers), who is pissed about this weird guy sleeping in her rainbow-colored bedroom. Everyone brings fascinating darkness to the smiling horror of this sequence, but Rogers is a vivid glitch in the chapter’s creepy simulation of a nuclear family. She barrels in and out of each scene, a great force of nature (and there are many of them in this movie) that makes Beau’s odyssey even more bewildering.
Midway through the film, “Beau Is Afraid” makes Phoenix’s character sit down so that it can float into a stop-motion sequence, with striking animation directed by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña (“The Wolf House”). It’s a movie-within-a-movie that has “Beau Is Afraid” touching upon sentimental, hallucinatory, poetic pieces of its complicated headspace and complements its other moments of uncanniness. It also adds to the movie’s severely irregular rhythms (like the famous lewd joke “The Aristocrats,” “Beau Is Afraid” prefers shapeless tangents for its full horrific effect, which is at times obtuse, and sometimes distancing). The sequence is rounded off by an essential metaphor that becomes important to the rich, pained nature of the movie, of art becoming so lifelike you don’t even realize how much of you is in it.
“Beau Is Afraid” jumps back in time to tell us more about young Beau (Armen Nahapetian), which includes a memory on a cruise ship with a young girl who makes his mother feel threatened. The scenes are visually striking, for their artificial sets and how Nahapetian looks like a de-aged Phoenix, but it also reveals a shortcoming to Aster’s expanding maximalist vision. He cannot convey tenderness in a way that feels sincere enough, and some heavy-handed developments here hollow out what is meant to be a heartfelt tragedy.
Zoe Lister-Jones plays Mona in these scenes, and what a colossal performance it is. In depicting Mona’s control and need, Lister-Jones pulls back the curtain on what has made such a monster in Beau’s mind while helping us understand Beau. She has one sequence where red light bathes her face as she lies in darkness with her son, telling him a past memory that will permanently screw Beau up. It is a wholly hypnotic monologue, thanks in part to the space and alarming gentleness with which Lister-Jones gives us each traumatizing revelation, sentence by sentence.
The film’s third act, its specific events not spoiled here, has “Beau Is Afraid” taking its full form as an exploitation film adapted from a therapist’s notepad. It’s full-on Grand Guignol emotional and psychological trauma, with moments of terror, jaw-dropping cartoonish absurdity, and an uneasy blend of past and present accompanied by a perfectly chosen Mariah Carey song. Aster packs in more characters, revelations, and more explosions of the psychological variety.
But for all of the power within this feverish work, including its fire-and-brimstone performances, it creates a weariness that does not work in Aster’s favor. The sequence is admirable visually–its disquieting modern architecture setting looms over its characters, and there are laugh-out-loud inserted images to level the tone. But like the intense strings of Bobby Krlic’s score, its pressing atonal nature at such a high volume becomes numbing; so too does the centerpiece dialogue that makes for an Oedipal screed and the twists that verge on self-parody. In its grand statement, “Beau Is Afraid” risks canceling out its intricate but chaotic arrangement into a simple scream.
The film includes many surprising performances that blossom in the movie’s off-kilter environs, from the likes of Parker Posey, Denis Ménochet, and Stephen McKinley Henderson. But the most important figure in “Beau Is Afraid” is Aster, who is openly wrestling with his work here. No rule says one needs a certain amount of features before reckoning with their authorship.
“Beau Is Afraid” is, appropriately, like a fever dream through the museum of Aster’s previous creations and fascinations—it’s not just the 2011 original short film “Beau,” but the premise of his short “Munchausen,” the hellish city landscape of “C’est la Vie” (starring Bradley Fisher, the man playing the role here of “Birthday Boy Stab Man”) and Aster’s fixation with head trauma, communes, etc. Part of the movie becomes like a retread of what built “Hereditary,” which is rendered all the more intensely personal by this film’s jarring use of first-person point-of-view shots (a terrified boy nodding to his mother) and its bookending scenes. The first scene of “Beau Is Afraid” is what this movie’s personal nature looks like on the outside. The final scene shows us what it feels like for it all to be entertainment.
This is all, of course, based on my first viewing of the movie. Any admirer of “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” knows those movies are better understood with multiple viewings and a closer look at the mechanics each time. Part of Aster’s extraordinary skill as an entertainer, when revealing these plots about horrific relationships, is in playing with how much an audience gets on their first viewing, as opposed to their second or third.
I’m curious, most of all, how the emotions within “Beau Is Afraid” will show more intricacy, or collapse under their weight, once all three hours of it feels more familiar. But like Paul Thomas Anderson’s own third film “Magnolia” (also three hours), the ambition is the point: it’s apparent even more how Aster has never made a feature or short that is lazy or overly assured of itself—he never will. After the dizzying but unforgettable experience of “Beau Is Afraid,” we now know who to thank for that.