Synopsis: Following the sudden death of his mother, a mild-mannered but anxiety-ridden man confronts his darkest fears as he embarks on an epic, Kafkaesque odyssey back home.
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Kylie Rogers, Parker Posey, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Hayley Squires, Michael Gandolfini, Zoe Lister-Jones, Richard Kind, Denis Ménochet
Director: Ari Aster
Running Length: 179 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Movies rarely give me a sense of dread when I sit down and get ready for them to start (well, maybe a few from Adam Sandler’s low period), but as Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid was drawing near, I realized that I was getting nervous. It could have been the running time which clocks in at nearly three hours, a record length for distributor A24. Or it might be because of early reports that the movie was sending preview audiences out into the night either wishing they’d never left the house or proclaiming they’d witnessed a new masterpiece.
In his previous two films, 2018’s Hereditary and 2019’s Midsommar, Aster pushed audience endurance while giving them stretches of brilliant entertainment. There was a frustrating setback both of them shared, though. Each film would start with a bang, coast on that opening energy, but then end with hair-pulling alienation. Instead of remembering the 75% positive experience Aster was giving, that critical 25%, which kept the viewer at arm’s length (sometimes violently so), would be what made Hereditary and Midsommar tough choices for a re-watch. (Hereditary is the more easily accessible, while Midsommar drifts toward the complex unapologetic filmmaker Aster wants to be.)
With Beau is Afraid, Aster’s third time up to bat finds the writer/director working from his most confident point of view and most ambitious. Yes, the film is sprawling and often achingly long, but it needs to take up all that extra space to exist as Aster imagined it. The journey the lead character, played by Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix, takes is epic in scope, so the movie depicting it has to match, and boy, does it not skimp on its elaborate, absurdist narrative.
Opening quite literally as Beau exits the womb, we soon find ourselves with a present-day Beau (Phoenix, Joker) meeting with his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Dune) over his litany of worries. A hypochondriac, he’s set to visit his magnate mother (Patti LuPone, The School for Good and Evil), an imperious woman who dramatically influences him, almost down to each breath he takes. Beau’s world (as Aster has assembled it) is a bit of a hellscape. Living in a rundown set of apartments as a cavalcade of homeless and violent sort tear each other apart outdoors, I shouldn’t wonder why Beau is afraid to leave the house on any given day. Delayed in leaving to visit his mother by a series of unfortunate events, Beau learns through a phone call that his mother was killed (in a heinous accident Aster spares us from seeing…one of the only bits of violence held back) and is sent reeling into the world to make it to her funeral.
Along the way on his extraordinary journey, he suffers numerous bodily injuries, sending him to recuperate at the home of too-perfect couple Roger (Nathan Lane, Mirror Mirror) and Grace (Amy Ryan, Monster Trucks) and their troubled daughter (Kylie Rogers, Collateral Beauty), meets a pregnant actress (Hayley Squires, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) and her merry band of forest-dwelling comrades, runs afoul of a psychotic ex-soldier (Denis Ménochet, The Beasts), and catches a glimpse of his first love who is now a grown woman (Parker Posey, Irrational Man). All the while, he has visions of himself as a young boy (Armen Nahapetian) with his mother (Zoe Lister-Jones, taking over for LuPone in these younger scenes) and witnesses fragments of memories starting to piece themselves together the closer he gets to home.
The attention to detail in Beau is Afraid is tremendous, with production designer Fiona Crombie (Cruella) outdoing even her Oscar-nominated work for The Favourite. Everywhere you look, there is something strange to see or put away in your back pocket for use later. The graffiti on the walls, signs, billboards, and even advertisements on television are jam-packed with so many inane/insane/profane asides that you’d have to watch the movie twice (once without sound) to truly take it all in. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Nobody) worked on Aster’s previous films and has developed an obvious shorthand with the director. There’s a clear line of vision between where the film is going and where it is telling us to look.
I know Phoenix can be hit or miss for some (as he is for me), but this is truly a triumph for the veteran actor. While I could have done with about half as many scenes of Beau being in such a state of shock that he can barely slur a sentence together (if he speaks at all), there’s something so on the mark about what Phoenix is doing that you can’t take your eyes off of him. Another dominating force is Lister-Jones, completely nailing the manipulative mommy role but adding a demented malevolence that prevents you from looking away.
You should see Beau is Afraid in the theater for two reasons. One is for an extended sequence where Beau “enters” a play being performed in the forest. This is the peak moment for several technical elements to work together (production design, make-up, special effects, cinematography) and when Aster’s storytelling strength comes through at its highest quality. The second is to witness the tower of fire LuPone brings to her scant few minutes onscreen. The film equivalent of a big belty 11 o’clock number, when she appears on screen, make sure you don’t leave the theater – because if you miss it, you’ll have to sit through the entire film again.
Then there’s the finale – the grand ending, which, in true Aster fashion, introduces something so eye-popping nuts that I wouldn’t blame you for needing to request assistance to pick your jaw up off the floor. That it follows a scene which will make you never hear Mariah Carey’s ‘Always Be My Baby’ the same way ever again is tough enough, but geez, how I wanted Aster to be able to bring this home. Unfortunately, it’s a mixed bag of a wrap-up that left me listing in an unmoored boat. The three hours of Beau is Afraid are worth it in the end (because of LuPone and the technical elements chiefly), but you might have to grit your teeth to get to the credits in one piece.