Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid defies easy classification, but is the director’s three hour epic almost too much to take in?
PLOT: A middle-aged man with severe mommy issues tries to return home.
REVIEW: Beau is Afraid is the kind of movie that only gets made when a studio gives a director carte-blanche. These highly distinctive, one might even say pretentious, epics seem like something every horror auteur needs to get out of their system, with it cut from the same cloth as Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake. Running a punishing three hours, it’s the kind of movie many will hate but some will love, and indeed, for this critic, it was a very mixed bag. Director Ari Aster is a genius, and the filmmaking is often stunning, but it’s almost too much to take in on a single viewing. I would say it’s the perfect midnight movie, but given the length, even this might be a bit of a tall order. Yet, I’ll give Beau is Afraid this – it’s never dull.
The premise for Aster’s movie defies easy explanation. It revolves around the titular Beau, a middle-aged man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, with grey hair and a bald pate. He seems to live in an apocalyptically run-down hellhole of a city (actually, a highly disguised Montreal). Every evening, after therapy, he has to run home and avoid a whole collection of madmen who prowl the streets looking for victims so that he can take refuge in his dank apartment. While he seems poor, Beau is actually the beloved son of a savvy businesswoman, Mona Wasserman, who obsesses over her boy’s every move. When his keys are stolen, and he misses a flight home to see her, Beau learns that she’s been killed in a horrible freak accident, something which kicks off a hallucinogenic odyssey. This includes stop-overs in the home of a doctor (Nathan Lane), his wife (Amy Ryan) and psychotic daughter (Yellowstone’s Kylie Rogers), an idyllic interlude with a travelling group of actors, and a return home.
One thing many will wonder is what genre this falls into. TOUGH QUESTION. While Aster is known for his horror films, this isn’t so easy to classify. It has horror elements and striking scenes of graphic violence, but it’s also blackly comedic. Yes, in some ways, you might call this a comedy, albeit not the “haha” type. It’s also a Freudian psychodrama revolving around Beau and his mother’s obsessive relationship, with her even warning him that should he ever decide to have sex with a woman, he’ll die due to a condition that runs in his family. And wait until you get a load of Beau’s father – but that’s a spoiler I’m not going to dig into here.
To his credit, Phoenix commits fully to Aster’s vision, as much as anything he’s ever done. He’s superb and perfectly cast in the often pathetic role, although it’s another “mommy issues’ role for the actor that maybe skews a little too closely to Joker. His casting seems unexpectedly on the nose for Aster, who otherwise casts entirely against type. I especially liked Nathan Lane in this as Beau’s temporary protector, continuing a solid run of character roles for the formerly stereotyped actor. His Only Murders in the Building co-star Amy Ryan is terrific as the warm, maternal figure who becomes a brief mother surrogate for Beau. Still, the film is all but stolen by young Kylie Rogers as their hell-spawn child, who might be one of the scariest villains of the year.
Patti LuPone also has a tour de force role as Beau’s mother, Mona, whose death doesn’t keep her from being a central character in the film. She’s the obsessive mother from hell, with Lupone’s larger-than-life appeal perfectly complimented by flashback scenes featuring a spot-on performance by Zoe Lister-Jones as the younger Mona.
So if the movie is so well cast and brilliantly made, why isn’t it a masterpiece? Here’s the thing – something people will say it is. Aster is trying to make his David Lynch movie here, and while it chugs along nicely for a good hour or two, the last act is deadly. It begins to overstay its welcome, but in many ways, this feels like a calculation by Aster, as I’m not sure he even wants you to like the last part of the movie. Choices are made that seem like a deliberate effort to send people storming out of the theater, and indeed this seems bound to be one of those movies that nabs an F-CinemaScore, although I think it’s a distinction all involved will wear proudly. It isn’t easy to review, as it’s such a full meal that, even a week after seeing it, I’m still utterly baffled by it.
Simply put, I need to see it again to have any faith in my ultimate take on the film. Yet, it’s still an easy recommendation if you’re a fan of this kind of thing that wants to be challenged. In the end, I give it a 6 on 10 with a huge asterisk. I reserve the right to come back to this review and adjust it to a 10 or a zero in the years to come.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/beau-is-afraid-review/