Watching a director leave the cozy confines of the genre that launched their success can be exciting. Just last year, Jordan Peele shifted gears. Moving on from Get Out and slasher horror resulted in a brilliant sci-fi monster flick Nope. Sometimes, the shift does not always work. Adam McKay has struggled to regain the acclaim of The Big Short as his stories lean harder into his political vision. If Ari Aster wanted to continue to make trauma-infused horror, he would continue to find his audience. However, the thrilling and phantasmagoric Beau is Afraid shelves the horror. Instead, Aster confronts nice guy syndrome and the concept of a “mama’s boy” to critique 21st-century culture.
After decades of fearing the world, Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) needs to go home. However, guilt gnaws at him, especially after his mother (Patti LuPone) dies. As he prepares to travel back for her funeral, he becomes incapacitated. This sets Beau on a series of odd adventures, with each vignette diving deeper into his psyche.
Much of Beau is Afraid takes aim at the common causes for men. Sexual repression becomes more intense for Beau as we relive his childhood (Armen Nahapetian). Seemingly innocent moments create unrealistic expectations of himself. Meanwhile, his mother (played in flashbacks by Zoe Lister-Jones) reminds him of sexual trauma in his family’s past while oversharing her own. Aster lays this groundwork to place Mona within a history of infamously overprotective mothers. As we watch their toxic relationship develop, it’s obvious how Beau grew to over-rely on his mother. While he attends therapy, he worries about his future trip to see her.
Aster’s approach to Beau is Afraid seeks to obscure audience perspectives on various topics. While his last films showed visual panache and power, they were soaked in grief. Instead, Beau erupts with anger and violence. To understand how we get there, Aster strolls through Beau’s loneliness and anxiety to reveal something darker at the center of the American psyche. Like Fight Club or Requiem for a Dream, anxiety and directionless frustrations crash through the screen. In an era where even AI Art takes away jobs and big data know our every move before we make it, paranoia has become mainstream.
Aster’s examination of men, not only fearful of the world but angry at their loss of agency, makes Beau is Afraid a stunning indictment. While the three-hour runtime never paints a one-sided view of its characters, Aster makes his opinion of Beau rather clear by the end of the story. While anxiety and fear of moving forward certainly affect some, Aster believes that many more use the guise of choice to hide their more manipulative selves.
Phoenix delivers another brilliant performance. It’s upsetting how often he turns unlikeable characters into multidimensional creations. Phoenix holds nearly three hours of surrealist comedy on his shoulders, easily vacillating between the satire, drama, and broad comedy of the role.
Patti LuPone dominates the movie with limited screen time. She creates a domineering character whose gravitational pull over the film becomes impossible to ignore. Lister-Jones also delivers a career-best performance. Her ability to key into resentment and guilt, while framing it through seemingly loving dialog, is astonishing. Other characters take over a scene or two at a time. The ensemble shines with Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, and Parker Posey rounding out the cast.
The craft of Beau is Afraid stuns, even if you bump against the narrative. The ever-changing world and energetic sequences recall an odd blend of Lynchian 70’s horror and Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. For many, this will be too esoteric and frustrating. The long runtime does not help, but Aster puts every idea and anxiety across the screen.
The details that come through in animated sequences are stunning. Yet even in the “real world,” visual details shine bright. A man covered in tattoos appears extremely fearful, while graffitied profanities cover the walls. Even when it leans into unpleasant moments, the visual splendor is undeniable.
Beau is Afraid will undoubtedly become one to revisit time and time again in the future. With gorgeous craft, brilliant performances, and shocking twists, Aster created something truly cinematic here. Its devotion to the cartoonish and outlandish world will be offputting for some. Yet its power comes from that commitment. If you are one for a somewhat punishing but thought-provoking experience, this film is for you.