There is a succinct, incredible moment of catharsis at the conclusion of Ari Aster’s feature debut Hereditary when one of its beleaguered, terrified protagonists makes the break-neck decision to defenestrate themselves rather than endure the horrors to come. Three features into his career, Aster has not only made a name for himself as an inventive horror auteur but as a peddler of relentless suffering. Both Hereditary and his 2019 sophomore effort Midsommar push their characters, their runtime, and their audience to the brink of agony. This unending pain often culminates in brief artfulness, but in his third film, Beau Is Afraid, Aster has finally crafted something so annoying it had me searching for a window through which I might release myself.
Beau Is Afraid stars Joaquin Phoenix as the titular Beau, a nervous schlub living in decrepit urban life, tormented by his anxieties and the ever-dangerous world around him. He is concerned about cancer and violence and all the other plagues, but mostly he is concerned about a mother he is due to visit upon the film’s beginning. He confides these worries to his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) who is all-but-eager to prescribe complicated medications that cope with these fears. Beau then faces a series of obstacles en route to his mother’s––equal parts Kafkaesque, Homeric, and Linus from “Peanuts”––that prevent him from getting closer to her or understanding what is wrong with himself.
These episodic passages of Beau Is Afraid are replete with accomplished performers––no doubt Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan’s double act as preening suburbanites will inspire affection––who present hyper-specific barriers, but they all tend to follow the same pattern. Beau is injured; Beau arrives somewhere new; things seem all right; things become awful; Beau tries to fix it; things become worse; Beau escapes; and then becomes injured––so on, so forth. Aster has taken all the wrong lessons from previous descriptions of his work as arch (more mistakenly “camp”) and funneled them into a whimsical cynicism far more committed to punchline than protagonist. Beau Is Afraid relies on subverting expectations so frequently that its twists become predictable, if not rote.
The film’s center comprises its most imaginative section, a welcome respite with a theater troupe wherein Beau imagines––through the power of storytelling, no less––a life more lived than his own. Beau Is Afraid shifts into something reminiscent of Michel Gondry or Charlie Kaufman, a pastoral vision of paper trees and agrarian peace of mind. This sequence, beautifully shot by Aster’s regular cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and boasting meticulous production design by Fiona Crombie, is both engaging and notably different from all that precedes and follows: Aster is willing to engage in a fantasy that feels natural, if not familiar––would that the play-within-a-movie had anything to do with Beau’s journey at all. This is a character to whom everything and nothing is relevant, such that his shallow fantasy bears little impact on how he continues trembling about the world.
What Beau is running to or from remains one in the same: his overbearing, over-involved, very Jewish mother (played in flashback by Zoe Lister-Jones and in present by the film’s MVP, Patti LuPone), who raised him after the mysterious death of his father. Beau is a man without male guidance, shrieky and weak-willed, arguably the product of note-perfect Jewish love. Aster’s satire is so potent it becomes over-saturated, and though Beau strives to break free of a destiny long intended for him––as did the protagonists of Hereditary and Midsommar––he winds up screwing himself over again and again. By the time this three-hour film reaches the feared mother it rushes through monologue after monologue to drive an ever-intangible point home.
What Beau Is Afraid lacks in human depth, however, it more than compensates for in Aster’s devotion to interiors, the way every apartment or house or bathroom feels like a geometric nightmare, a living M.C. Escher creation. Angular features of the mother’s home, which boasts an interior ledge so precarious I worried for any character drawing near it, ring far more imaginative than any writing. Infrequent thrills of the viewing experience are less centered on Beau’s haphazard ability to escape than the places he tries to escape from––where Aster’s puppetmaster tendencies come to life.
Beau Is Afraid hates Beau, no doubt, but it hates his mother, too, and it hates everyone who shows him both kindness and cruelty, a comedy of neither manners nor errors. If relentlessness need not build towards an artful sentiment, it ought not give way to tedium, to the steady percussive nature of being poked in the backseat of a car by a younger sibling. Deprived of the central humanist protagonists of Aster’s two previous films (Alex Wolff’s Peter and Florence Pugh’s Dani, respectively), Beau Is Afraid plays as if Hereditary was only the Toni Collette scenes with no one to balance or buoy or betray her, a humanlike gesture towards trauma. Maybe this appeals to some: no doubt Aster’s latest will, like his last two, be divisive amongst audiences. Yet Beau Is Afraid proves its director much crueler than tasteless decapitations or bodies exploding against rocks: his latest exercise is a devotional study of love’s punishing tenure.
Beau Is Afraid opens in limited release on April 14 and expands wide on April 21.