It feels like Ari Aster’s career has been building towards a three-hour horror epic starring Joaquin Phoenix. And naturally, this surreal descent into madness is brought to us by the good folks at A24. It won’t come as a shock that Beau Is Afraid derived from the same mind behind Hereditary and Midsommar. Yet, Beau Is Afraid is by no means par for the course. Even by Aster’s standards, nothing can prepare you for just how strange, funny, and occasionally frustrating his third feature is. The execution might not be as successful as his previous efforts, but the film’s performers, craft, and warped interpretation of reality will linger under your skin.
Phoenix continues his streak of playing pathetic losers who are either going insane or the only sane person in the room. The titular Beau can’t go outside without having to fight through a hoard of lost souls perpetually rioting in the streets. Is this just how Beau sees the world or has the world around him gone to hell? Either way, it feels like everyone is out to get Beau, even those who seem pleasant on the surface. In the film’s most memorable segment, Beau finds himself in the care of Amy Ryan’s Grace and Nathan Lane’s Roger. This dementedly pleasant couple is eager for Beau to fill the void that their late son left behind. They’re so eager that they somehow already have a pair of pajamas with the name Beau stitched on the pocket.
In addition to the bizarrely happy couple, Beau must endure their extra angsty teenage daughter (Kylie Rogers) and an unstable veteran (Denis Ménochet). These scenes almost play like a satire of Aster’s previous work. Maybe there’s a deeper message behind the insanity, but Aster seems to be getting in on the joke by going completely unhinged. Lane, in particular, is having the time of his life as a family patriarch whose chipper attitude is only matched by his creepiness. Had Beau spent the remainder of the run time in this madhouse, the film might’ve been a black comedy classic. Unfortunately, Beau’s unexpected family takes him out of the house and into the woods.
Beau comes across a traveling theatre troupe putting on a performance for themselves. This is the most conflicting part of the film. It’s perhaps the most visually-striking chapter with Beau envisioning himself as the protagonist on stage. The animated backdrops are beyond inspired, but the sequence grows self-indulgent after nearly a half-hour. While the payoff is worthwhile, most of the segment feels like Aster being an auteur for the sake of being an auteur. The same can be said about much of the film, but this detour lacks any self-awareness or humor.
It comes as a relief when Beau finally gets to his destination, although this is ironically the film’s most stressful portion. Beau finds himself at the mercy of Patti LuPone, Richard Kind, and Parker Posey in a finale that makes every preceding misadventure feel like a stroll in the park. As wickedly hilarious and unnerving as the last act can be, it overstays its welcome. Even the end credits feel needlessly dragged out. Maybe this is so we can reflect on what we just experienced or maybe Aster is purposely trolling us. Aster isn’t for everybody, but Beau Is Afraid is his most mixed bag. When it works, the audience is paranoid to the point that they have no choice but to laugh. When it drags with no direction, you’ll want to take over in the editing room. Even at its most pretentious, Beau Is Afraid won’t bore you. Just think twice about bringing your mother (unless she’s into weird stuff).