review: beau is afraid
Little Beau Creep
Review: Beau Is Afraid
If you don’t already suffer from anxiety going into this movie, you may want to prepare for an immersive experience. In this epic cinematic fever dream, Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) answers the question, what if Uncut Gems was remade by Charlie Kauffman but instead of an Ethiopian opal, it’s your mother’s judgment?
The first hour is stress porn at its most visceral. Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is a psychologically-delicate loser living in squalor in an unnamed city. In this movie, though, he doesn’t become Joker, he instead attempts to visit his remote but domineering mother. Increasingly horrifying developments prevent this from happening. Beau lives in an urban hellscape with dangers - many imagined but some perhaps real - that are at his throat as soon as he opens his front door.
Set upon from the start by a tidal wave of anxiety and Cronenbergian levels of psycho-physical violence, Beau’s only solace lies in his drug-administering therapist. Even at rest, he is tortured by memories of his mother, which swing between overly-affectionate and abusive. Escaping from the incredibly choreographed unhinged venality and street terror propels us into Beau’s voyage, much of which experiences passively, tossed along on an unpredictable stream of random circumstance and hallucination.
Aster’s own tropes are present from these early scenes, his fascination with decapitation, devils hanging from ceilings and people jumping off ledges all touched on. They appear in various guises throughout Beau’s odyssey - the foreshadowing tapestry in the opening of Midsommar is replaced by a video tape that seems to predict an inescapable future. People as puppets or painted models or characters in a play - another of Aster’s fixations - is another theme.
Beau lands in a suburban sanctuary that becomes more sinister by the day, and then escapes to a dreamlike woodland camp, before arriving at his mother’s house for a final reckoning. The plot is really a series of increasingly surreal, horrific tableaux, each with their own stakes. What if swallowing pills without water killed you? What if you left your apartment door open and unattended in a feral neighborhood? What if every single feeling of safety that you ever felt was an illusion? It’s a series of rug pulls, with the added feeling that mother is watching at all times.
The cast is a parade of national treasures: Nathan Lane, Parker Posey, Amy Ryan, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Richard Kind and Patti LuPone. There are also some gasp-inducing cameos that I won’t spoil. Phoenix delivers his exasperating milquetoast of a man with impressive discipline, and in flashbacks Armen Nahapetian is excellent as young Beau, as is Zoe Lister-Jones as his mother. Kylie Rogers also stands out as the suburban couple’s chaotically unhinged teen daughter.
It’s all here. Comedy, body horror, animation, post-modern framings, Black Mirror-esque weirdness and relentless Freudian symbolism. At three hours long, it might be a stretch for some, but the pacing, cast and sheer variety of Aster’s cinematic toolbox were compelling. You might not love all of it, but you can’t help but admire the ambition. (PO)
Beau Is Afraid is playing at the Prytania Theater Canal Place and across the city.
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