After his success with “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” writer-director Ari Aster has released “Beau is Afraid,” a surreal horror-comedy drama based on his 2014 short film “Beau.” This three-hour epic, which is indie studio A24’s highest-budgeted movie at $35 million, shows Aster becoming more ambitious as a creator. He even described this movie as a “Jewish ‘Lord of the Rings.’”
The film follows the misadventures of anxious middle-aged Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) as he tries to get to his mom’s house on the anniversary of his father’s death. Aster deviates from realism when depicting Beau’s anxiety, creating a world where everyone is out to get him. Mix that with bizarre imagery and horrific scenarios, and you have a wild, funny and disturbing odyssey with equal parts brilliance and head-scratching.
As Beau walks back from therapy, we see just how chaotic his world is: a city full of beatings, dead bodies, vendors selling AK-47s and reports of a naked serial killer named “Birthday Boy Stab Man.” Before Beau can leave the apartment, he misses his flight due to a spiteful neighbor playing loud music, which leads to a condescending call from his mom.
Beau also mysteriously loses his keys and bags, and when he takes his anti-anxiety medication, the water in his building shuts off. This leads to a great gag where he Googles the drug, only to find news reports of people who died taking it without water.
If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind this is before he even starts his journey to his mom’s house. This state of misery and anxiety never goes away, with Beau continuing to go through comedic misfortunes like getting locked out of his apartment by a group of homeless people, interacting with a theater troupe in the woods and being held hostage by an overly cheery suburban family after they run him over with a food truck.
The way Aster and his crew bring out Beau’s anxiety is nothing short of amazing. Every scene feels off-putting in its own way due to the camerawork and editing, whether that’s in one-takes, extreme close-ups, crash zooms, jump cuts and panning or cutting to different angles during conversations.
That surrealist dream quality also comes out of the detailed set design and its tonally distinct locations. The rundown quality of Beau’s home is exaggerated, with crude graffiti, broken elevator doors, dingy apartment interiors and old furniture. When he’s trapped in the suburban family’s home, it looks idyllic with bright white colors, modern appliances and spaciousness, yet the isolating forest outside the house creates unease.
The best of these sets, however, is the live-action/animated play sequence, using colorful 2D sets, 2D animation and actors that become a standout moment in the movie. With these locations, the film makes great use of its $35 million budget.
Another factor that makes “Beau is Afraid” effective is the acting. As usual, Phoenix gives a standout performance and gives Beau a human touch. No matter what ridiculous events he goes through, he’s identifiable and pitiable rather than being a caricature of anxiety disorder.
Suburban couple Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane) bring in tension and hilarity through their kind demeanor. I laughed every time Roger acted like a chill dad to Beau, calling him “Big Man” and “M’Brotha” while refusing to let Beau leave his house.
Their daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers), gives a memorable performance of stereotypical teenage angst. She berates and tortures Beau every chance she gets, expressing her grief and anger in unsettling ways. It’s both funny and terrifying to watch Rogers act this crazy.
Despite not being in the movie as much, Mona (Patti LuPone) breathes new life into the overbearing mother trope. Her frustrations with Beau manifest in a chilling yet realistic way, as if any mother could act the way she does. LuPone’s performance is intense enough to eat into Beau’s fear and make him feel ashamed of not meeting her expectations.
“Midsommar” composer Bobby Krlic returns for a soundtrack that varies between anxious, disturbing and dreamily haunting. The music is essential whenever it appears, evoking fear while being memorable by itself.
Even though it has some captivating parts, “Beau is Afraid” isn’t easy to sit through. The three-hour length shows during some debatably necessary sequences, such as a character dying by drinking paint or a reveal involving Beau’s dad. Although they can feel like Aster showing off or being weird for the sake of it, those scenes do tie back to the film’s themes of trauma, abuse, independence and family relationships.
You might question if you’re enjoying this film because it throws so many ideas and weird images at you for such a long time. If you go in expecting to immediately like or dislike it, you will hate it (in my audience of 10, two people left halfway through). If you’re open to a long, psychological epic, though, you may warm up to it.
While I came around to liking it, my main critique goes to Aster. Once more, Aster tells another horror story about family and trauma, with his usual tropes like dysfunctional families, nudity and decapitation (though the cliche is used more like a comedic self-parody here). It would be nice to see him cover a story with different themes, showing his growth as a writer and director.
Aster’s latest film is long and unwieldy, yet fascinating and ambitious. Even if it treads familiar territory, it remains impressive because the acting, sets, humor and utter madness are so well-executed. Whether you’re still processing the imagery or trying to figure out what it all means, “Beau is Afraid” will stick with you as another unforgettable nightmare.
“Beau is Afraid” is rated R for strong violent content, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language.