Playing Beau Wassermann, the character who gives Ari Aster’s third feature its name, Joaquin Phoenix goes balls to the wall in a performance of astonishing intensity that holds nothing back. Beau lives next door to a peep show emporium called Ejectus Erectus, and at one point is informed by a medic that his abnormally distended testicles are cause for concern, which is just one of many indications that this guy badly needs to — how to put it delicately? — oh heck, shoot a load.
Three hours that definitely put the odd in odyssey, Beau Is Afraid could be said to suffer from the same bloat, wandering through bizarre detours of varying effectiveness before arriving at a wonderfully overripe operatic climax elevated by Patti LuPone as the Lydia Tár of single mothers. But even if its pacing is uneven, this is a movie of undeniably impressive big swings.
Beau is Afraid
The Bottom Line
Of a piece with the diabolically imaginative double-header that thrust Aster onto the map, Hereditary and Midsommar, but also a significant departure into more adventurous territory, the new film trades the visceral impact of nerve-shredding horror for maniacal dark comedy in a frequently intoxicating whirl of Oedipal angst, paranoia and confusion. It’s the sort of batshit-crazy family affair that only a director with established auteur credentials could get made, which explains why Aster tackled it now even though the original script predates his earlier features.
It starts out paying homage to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours before shifting into Charlie Kaufman mode with a liberal splash or two of Cronenbergian grotesquerie.
But even with a giant monster subtly suggested early on by one of the advertised attractions at Ejectus Erectus, Beau Is Afraid occupies more of a head space than its gut-churning predecessors in the already formidable Aster canon. It’s fueled more by anxiety than terrifying dread, which may temper its appeal to hardcore horror consumers. But as a journey into outré excess that’s entirely on brand for A24, it demands to be seen.
The tortured mother-son dynamic that drives the picaresque plot is established right up front, opening in darkness with the sound of a heartbeat, intermittent bursts of light and the shrieks of a woman fearing the worst for her freshly delivered baby, until a smack on the bum reveals a healthy, bawling boy. It sets the film’s tone of off-kilter humor and makes far more playful use of a simulated womb-cam than Andrew Dominik’s Blonde.
Cut to 40ish years later and Phoenix’s Beau — paunchy, balding, and so mired in misery he often seems borderline catatonic — is seeing his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson). The rattled look on Beau’s face when a missed call and voicemail from Mom show up on his phone leaves no doubt as to the main subject of their sessions. But when his shrink asks how he’s feeling about an upcoming visit to his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death, Beau mostly just mumbles incoherently. That at least scores him new meds.
In one of the most virtuoso segments, shot by Aster’s regular DP Pawel Pogorzelski as a dizzying tracking sequence through streets seething with chaos and violence, Beau weaves his way back to his grungy apartment block in an unnamed city. Gun stalls sit alongside tchotchke stands and food trucks; locals dance, scream and fight, while news reports warn of a psychotic vagrant roaming the streets naked and stabbing random strangers.
Things are no less calm inside Beau’s apartment, where a sign on the door informs tenants of an infestation of brown recluse spiders. Increasingly hostile notes are shoved under his door from an irate neighbor demanding that he turn down his music, even though it’s coming from a different apartment. But that friction perhaps explains why his keys and luggage are stolen on the doorstep as he’s preparing to leave for the airport.
The awkward phone conversation when Beau calls his mother, Mona, to tell her of the hitch is just a taste of the strained rapport between them (evident also in flashbacks, with the younger Mona played by Zoe Lister-Jones and 13-year-old Beau by Armen Nahapetian). LuPone’s flat responses are punctuated by deafening silences, making it clear Mona believes Beau is just fabricating an excuse not to visit.
The movie chronicles the dogged determination of this broken man — whose adult life appears to have been one long trembling retreat — to prove his mother wrong. He battles against external forces as well as those in his addled mind, which in Kaufmanesque fashion may all be part of the same thing.
One of the wildest obstacles occurs the first night, when he’s shut out of his apartment and watches from a horrified distance as a rowdy mob occupies and trashes the place. Even when he reclaims possession and attempts to destress in a warm bath, danger remains, forcing him back out onto the streets and into a life-threatening accident.
From the hellish city, the film shifts to seemingly tranquil suburbia, where Beau gets a brief taste of what life in a loving family might feel like as he’s cared for by surgeon Roger (Nathan Lane) and his compassionate wife Grace (Amy Ryan). He becomes a surrogate son to the couple, whose own son was killed in action and whose teenage daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers) is a volatile pillhead. Roger agrees to drive Beau to his mother’s place, but that promise, like Beau’s sanctuary, is short-lived, not least because of a PTSD-afflicted war veteran, Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), living in a trailer in the couple’s yard.
The setting shifts again and gets even trippier as Beau flees through the woods and stumbles upon a hippy-dippy forest theater troupe rehearsing a play. He’s invited to join them for the performance, which yields the movie’s most mesmerizing sequence. Simultaneously finding and losing himself in the action onstage, Beau wanders through an alternate reality, a family life of joys and heartbreaks that might have been his, rendered in exquisitely dreamlike animation by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, the inventive Chilean craftsmen behind The Wolf House.
Rude reality — or irreality? — breaks the spell again, but Beau somehow escapes fresh threats against his life and lands back at the palatial home of his mother in the town that bears the titan of industry’s name, Wasserton.
In a movie packed with meticulous design details, all of which are there for a reason, the house is an architectural marvel no less striking than Aster’s sets for Hereditary, its walls a shrine to Mona’s love for her only son. Beau’s yearning to believe in that love is amusingly underscored by the 1972 soft-rock nugget “Everything I Own,” by Bread.
But maternal love is far more complicated than any sappy pop song. The line between sacrifice and suffocation is a thin one, as is the line separating filial devotion from festering guilt. The less you know about this exhilaratingly loopy final stretch the better, beyond that it contains outlandish revelations, foreshadowed throughout, about Beau’s father. Oh, and also one of the most gonzo sex scenes in recent memory, set to Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.”
The section also features fabulous performances, fearlessly in line with Aster’s nightmarish vision — by Parker Posey as an employee of Mona’s who’s also the childhood sweetheart of Beau’s abortive cruise-ship romance; Richard Kind as Mona’s lawyer, who veers from thundering disapproval to damning judgment; and most of all, LuPone in all her magnificent, scenery-chomping glory.
With a mouth made for sneering and a voice made for withering disdain, Mona sets Beau straight on the stringent terms of her highly conditional love and the ways in which he has failed her by rejecting those terms. It’s a display of Jewish maternal monstrosity for the ages.
The movie is ingeniously cast, with every performance finding its own idiosyncratic groove while also cohering to fit within the same unhinged universe of a mind in deep distress. That includes droll work from Lane, Ryan and Henderson in particular, while Nahapetian captures the incapacitating fear of a kid well on his way to being a basket-case adult, and Lister-Jones is hilarious as the controlling mother, injecting creepily sexual undertones into lines like, “I’m proud of the man you are.”
But it’s Phoenix who keeps you glued even through the film’s sometimes challenging longueurs, in a performance as fully, insanely committed as any he’s ever given. If the character invites more cringing pity than emotional investment, that’s more to do with the distancing effect of Aster’s surreal approach than anything lacking in Phoenix’s raw, gaping wound of a characterization. If you have mother issues, watching Beau’s Homeric humiliation will trigger them.