Fear and Loathing

Director Ari Aster’s latest explores monumentally monstrous mommy issues

Beau is Afraid
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan & Patti LuPone
Directed by Ari Aster
Rated R

In theaters Friday, April 21, 2023

An epic, surreal neurotic odyssey, director Ari Aster’s latest movie mind warp is a three-hour dive into some monumental mommy-dearest issues.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Beau, a deeply disturbed, woebegone sad sack preparing for a trip to visit his mother. But his trek is derailed by a colossally wild detour into the heart of crazytown as he confronts some of his greatest fears and anxieties before finally facing the twisted, tangled roots of his lifelong problems.

Aster is the horror-flick auteur who gave us Hereditary, about an ancient demonic force taking hold of a family, and Midsommer, in which a group of young Americans finds some shockingly extreme couples therapy at a creepy folk festival. Beau is Afraid doesn’t plunge as deep into the outright freak-show terrors of either of those films (at least not until its far-out finale), but it “feels” like a horror movie throughout, as Beau’s journey takes him into one terrifying situation after another. It’s like the ancient tale of Oedipus grafted onto the biblical story of Job, topped with a bracing, fatalistic slap of Coen Brothers oddness and a hyper-medicated kick of fear, dread and self-loathing.

(Watch closely and you’ll see some things—a headless body, a brown bear on a blanket and a particularly gruesome death “on the rocks”—that might remind you of touchstones from the director’s previous films.)  

So, what is Beau afraid of? Well, he fears going outside, into the dystopic, dangerous swirl of derelicts, junkies and thieves lurking just beyond the locked door of his squalid apartment building. Can he get stomach cancer from accidentally swallowing mouthwash, or die by taking medication without water? Is that naked homicidal maniac going to stab him? What’s the deal with the peculiar altruistic couple (Kevin Lane and Amy Ryan) who take him into their home after striking him with their vehicle? Or their surly teenage daughter, who loathes him, and the enraged U.S. Army veteran trying to track him down and kill him? Practically paralyzed with guilt and bearing enough psychological baggage to sink a ship, Beau is afraid of just about anything and everything—especially his mother (Zoe Lister Jones in flashbacks, Patti LuPone in present-day).

Parker Posey plays Beau’s grownup childhood beau, who shows up just in time for a fateful reunion.

The movie throws a lot at you and asks a lot of you—that you go along with Beau on his torturous journey of self-discovery and wrap your head around what it all means. In the film’s most bewitching segment, Beau encounters a theatrical troupe of performers in the forest, a folklore-ish interlude during which he experiences an alternate, hallucinogenic overview of his life. It’s the most dazzling, mesmerizing moment in a movie overstuffed with wonders and puzzles and unsettling issues, about mothers and sons and pasts littered with regrets.

And it’s a movie that takes sexual performance anxiety to a whole new level, especially as it settles into its home stretch and skeletons (so to speak) come clattering out of the closet—and a grotesquely symbolic monster lurks in a corner of the attic. I guarantee it will out-monster anything you ever conjured up that might be hiding underneath your childhood bed.

Does life come down to a litany of all your transgressions, a messy pile-up of everything you’ve done, and all you didn’t do? Can anything save you, in the end, when your little boat is sinking into the murky abyss of eternity’s dark ocean? Are all the fibers of our being connected and interwoven in ways we can’t possibly fathom? And is someone—maybe your mother, who brought you into this world—really watching it all, forever judging, disapprovingly tabulating the many ways in which you never measured up?

You can see how all that would surely mess up someone, the way it’s certainly messed up Beau.

Beau is Afraid is challenging for its excessive length, its bold, sprawling vision and its unconventional, bizarro mix of inscrutable characters, improbable circumstances and sequences that blur the lines between reality and fantasy. It’s not a feel-good movie by any means, even though it has moments of wild wonder and fantastical beauty, and spatters of bleak humor—like the “menu” posted outside a sleazy peep show, a TV dinner with some comically unlikely ingredients, and the overall gonzo weirdness of it all. It’s like watching one man’s precipitous tumble into the murky deep end of his intensely troubled gene pool, and you’ll probably leave the theater wondering what, exactly, you just saw.

But it’s certainly arty, well-made, brazenly original and totally authentic—a big-screen panacea for anyone who needs a palate cleanser after a junk-food movie diet of superhero sequels, shoot-‘em-up action flicks and dopey romcoms.

“This is all very confusing,” Beau says at one point. Indeed, it is. But Beau is Afraid is a fearless exploration of one man’s anxiety unlike anything you’ve ever seen, a long-haul onscreen psychotherapy session that leaves you with more questions than answers and dares you to take one of the year’s wildest, most provocatively daring movie rides.

—Neil Pond


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