With only three features under his belt, writer/director Ari Aster has made quite a name for himself with back-to-back nervy horror hits Hereditary and Midsommar.
He returns after a four-year break with Beau Is Afraid, a three-hour Oedipal odyssey that is certainly anxious enough to argue that it incorporates elements of horror but mainly plays like a pitch-dark comedy.
Massively expanding on his 11-minute short Beau made 12 years prior, Aster seems to throw everything he has into his latest venture, but in its attempt to exorcise personal demons, the film loses the plot along the way. There are scenes of demented comedy and well-directed chaos that almost make the journey worthwhile, but the experience in retrospect is more exhausting than awe-inspiring.
As can be expected at this point, Joaquin Phoenix gives another fully committed and involving performance as Beau, a middle-aged man struggling with neuroses and arrested development. On the anniversary of his father’s death, he plans to visit his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone), but several obstacles near his threatening apartment dwellings preclude him from making the flight. As he crosses the street to a convenience store, he is struck by a food truck driven by Grace (Amy Ryan) and her husband, Roger (Nathan Lane). Feeling guilty about the accident, the couple take Beau into their care until he heals enough to make the trip, but their initial benevolence is not as altruistic and nurturing as it seems. After a misunderstanding with their daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers), Beau flees to the woods nearby, and his long strange trip only gets weirder.
The structure of Beau Is Afraid isn’t exactly a traditional three-act structure, but the movie can be thought of in three distinct sections that roughly correspond with about an hour of runtime each. There are portions from each of these chapters that work and could be rearranged to make a more cohesive story, but all three also have too much extraneous material that should have never made it to final cut. That first hour is the most structurally approachable and comedically accessible, setting up Beau’s paranoid perspective on his urban environment with crime-addled surroundings so hyperbolic that we don’t have a choice but to laugh. As someone who gets nervous by the overactive nature of big cities, I got a kick out of Aster pushing the heightened reality of street-level activity to ridiculous proportions.
If the first act is mother! meets Misery, then the ensuing act set in a forest is Aster’s attempt at an esoteric and verbose Charlie Kaufman affair, specifically Synecdoche, New York. It’s here that cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski really gets to shine, balancing the ornate set design and inventive effects work with aplomb and splendor. But Aster completely loses his way from a storytelling perspective in this section, weaving a lengthy post-modern yarn that doesn’t lend nearly enough significance to the central plot. While the wheel-spinning is often pretty to look at, it stops any narrative momentum that the first section built up. There’s an explosive end to this act that carries over the comical levels of violence from the first hour and at least tries to get things moving forward once more.
By the time the third act rolls around, it becomes more obvious what Aster is attempting to say and accomplish, but it takes a long while to get to that final punchline. Like the previous two sections, there are individual segments that work terrifically; if nothing else, you’ll never listen to a particular Mariah Carey track the same way again. In stretches, it evokes the parental spiritualism of Eraserhead and The Truman Show but without the former’s cogent symbolism or the latter’s sense of childlike wonder.
It’s a film destined to spawn a thousand “Explained!” video essays on YouTube, even though it’s simply not worth all the effort. The self-indulgent Beau Is Afraid finds Aster at the crossroads of what kind of filmmaker he’s going to be moving forward. I hope whatever path he picks leads to more fruitful results.
New movies coming this weekend
Opening only in theaters is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., a coming-of-age dramedy starring Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams, which adapts the groundbreaking Judy Blume novel about a middle schooler who navigates friends, family, and religion in 1970s New Jersey.
Also playing only in theaters is Polite Society, an action comedy starring Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya about a sister who goes to great lengths to stop her older sister’s wedding from occurring to preserve their independence and sisterhood.
Premiering on Disney+ is Peter Pan & Wendy, a fantasy adventure starring Jude Law and Alexander Molony that retells the classic tale of a boy who wouldn’t grow up as he recruits three young siblings in London to join him on a magical journey to the enchanted Neverland island.