Perhaps my favorite movie-going story is how right after graduating college I went on a long-awaited trip to Europe with my mother and, at the same time, Ari Aster’s debut film, Hereditary (2018) was released into theaters. My Twitter timeline from the other side of the pond was blowing up with praise for this devilish new horror film from A24 that I’ve been hearing musings about since Sundance earlier that year. Unfortunately, in the UK, the film hadn’t been released yet, but once I made it to Paris, I decided to spend one of my free evenings trekking across the city to find a non-dubbed version of the film to see, a journey I was initially going to make alone. My mother, whom I warned personally that the film would not be for her, insisted on coming for the French cinema experience. I had no idea what we were getting into, and my mother certainly had no idea what we were getting into. Upon the end credits of Hereditary (or Heredité, if we want to be specific), I felt scarred and shaken by the experience of watching the film with my mother. My mother’s reaction? “Why did you jump so much? That wasn’t that scary.”
Anyways, Ari Aster’s new film, Beau is Afraid, releases this weekend into the canon of more “films I absolutely never want to watch with my mother.” However, unlike Hereditary and Midsommar (2019), I don’t think I’m feeling this one.
Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) is an isolated, sexually repressed, and incredibly anxious man who lives alone in the slums of an unnamed, crime-ridden, dystopian city. When prepping for a trip to visit his overbearing mother, Mona (Patti LuPone, played in flashbacks by Zoe Lister-Jones), Beau’s bag is taken, his keys are stolen, his apartment is broken into and ransacked, and he receives devastating news from a stranger over the phone. Desperate to escape the city and get to his mother’s home, Beau’s escapades lead him to being stabbed, shot at, ran over, imprisoned by a suburban family (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan), taken in by a wandering hippie theater troupe, hitchhiking, hunted by a PTSD-ridden soldier, and everything in between (I genuinely mean that). All Beau wants to do is get to his mother.
Beau is Afraid is a Pandora’s Box of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, and takes so many grand, silly swings that it’s hard not to be entranced by the risks it takes on such a large scale (larger in IMAX, if you can), but it’s also impossible to ignore the mess it makes of itself when you attempt to piece together the likable individual elements into one cohesive film. What ends up happening is that Beau is Afraid begins to feel like procedural episodes in a dark Adult Swim show than it does a three-hour epic that comes together into one grand picture. To many, that sounds like a net positive in description, but on my end, as someone who enjoys Aster’s simple, but effective horror, that puts a pit in my stomach like nothing else. These tonal inconsistencies made for the experience to feel less effective than its predecessors, even if it is going for so much more. It’s a series of puzzle pieces that all belong to different puzzles. Strange, unique, often beautiful pieces to beautiful puzzles, but pieces that have no use to you as a puzzle-solver.
However, with these admirable individual elements come a lot of opportunities for some very great performances across the board, something present across all of Aster’s films, which I’m ecstatic haven’t gone away even with such a different film. Phoenix (Joker) is maddeningly good as Beau, creating such a damaged, frustrating, and often quite repulsive little fucker of a protagonist. He’s not “likable” per se, but there is such a deep tragic nature about him that you really just want him to feel some love to know that it exists. Lane (Only Murders in the Building) and Ryan (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)) are also devilishly macabre in their roles as Beau’s quasi-captors, with a waspy, friendly, and very familiar tone to their tone that immediately set alarms off for everyone in the theater. Yet, despite all this, Beau is Afraid is defined (at least to myself) by Patti LuPone’s (Driving Miss Daisy) absolutely show-stopping, but quietly cold performance as Beau’s domineering CEO mother. LuPone, frankly, had always frightened me a bit in her big Broadway matriarchal schtick, something that both excites me as a homosexual, but terrifies me as someone who hates conflict the same way she loves it. LuPone, very aware of this tough, but loved persona she inhabits with the Theater Gays™, and really milks it for all its worth in Mona, a woman who scorns from being scorned, who always views herself righteously even when she is absolutely wrong, and one who uses her positions of power to get exactly what she wants, when she wants. I also imagine Mona Wasserman probably also hates Andrew Lloyd Webber (The Phantom of the Opera), and I love that for her. LuPone, while not in the film for anything resembling a majority of the film’s three-hour runtime, takes the minutes she does inhabit and leaves them as the most memorable minutes of the whole bloody affair.
No one can argue Aster’s films don’t have an immense style, and there’s more of that than ever in Beau is Afraid, from the apocalyptic action sequences, to the domestic horror of Nathan Lane, to the absolutely stunning animation work from the Chilean filmmakers behind the haunting The Wolf House, Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña, all the way back to the shadowy modern homes of the damaged mother we got with Hereditary, Aster is working at full-speed to show you how much he’s putting into Beau is Afraid, and in individual bursts, like pretty much everything else around, works on a “vignette-by-vignette” basis. Once we see the full picture, the final product feels rather disjointed, and any of the beauty found in the chaos feels more like a happy accident than anything else.
I think many will call Beau is Afraid “inaccurately marketed,” to which I can’t really disagree with on a technical level, but the real question is “How does a studio accurately market Beau is Afraid?” There’s no way for any studio to have any inkling on how to properly tell anyone what Beau is Afraid is about without spoiling the whole thing. Yet, even as someone who has seen the film, I don’t know if I can really tell you what it’s about either, let alone boil it down into a three-minute trailer or a single poster. Perhaps it’s because it’s about 10,000 different things at once, telling 10,000 different stories, and only managing to organize a few of them before tapping out and moving on. There is a tighter, leaner (not necessarily shorter, I actually quite like the long, “epic” aspect of it all) film to be seen in Beau is Afraid, one that doesn’t take so many detours as to become Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) meets Sorry to Bother You (2018) meets Mother! (2017), with little of the singular visions that made those films great. Watching any filmmaker, let alone one as young as Aster, take on such a task, is incredibly impressive from a filmmaking perspective, and I’m very glad Beau is Afraid exists for that reason, and I’m glad we have people like Aster around to do so, even if there is far too much semen dip on his Freudian chip this time around.
Is his Mom okay?
In theaters April 21 2023.
For more information, head to the A24 Beau is Afraid webpage.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.