Filmmaker Ari Aster has oedipal issues. The artist has deeply complicated and unresolved issues with his mother that go back to his earliest movies (to this day, Aster won’t really talk about his mother in the press and has hinted at a troubled, rocky relationship). His feature-length debut, “Hereditary,” a blistering horror he wrote and directed, not only announced him as an immediate writer/director auteur to watch but unveiled the notions of emotional traumas, toxic relationships, and damaged family legacies handed down—from the matriarchs of the family—that would span his short, but specific and still-blossoming career. While “Midsommar,” his sophomore effort, chronicles a bad breakup and horrible gaslighting (and let’s not forget the dead parents in the incredibly dark opening of the film), he returns to his oedipal complex with “Beau Is Afraid,” an ambitious, three-hour nightmare comedy that is delirious, hysterically funny, deeply disturbing, and profoundly traumatic and f*cked up regarding the toxic mother/son dynamic and punitive/obsequious/trying to please the horribly controlling and withholding mom relationship.
What if “Taxi Driver” was remade as a Kafkaesque dark comedy? What if the crushing anxious neurosis of Woody Allen and his oedipal comedies were reframed as emotionally traumatic horror movies? What if the aspiring and post-modern “Synecdoche, NY” from filmmaker Charlie Kaufman, about existential despair, was actually funny and not just monumentally bleak and depressing? Those examples and Aster’s own sensibilities—pitched somewhere in between what’s hilariously dark and just genuinely darkly horrifying—seem to encapsulate ‘Beau,’ though it is a pitch-black movie that is arguably broken into five acts and metamorphosizes as it goes.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau Wassermann, an emotionally stunted man, who can’t really make any decisions in his life, is terrified of his domineering mother, and goes to therapy regularly to confront his problems with her. The first act is set in scuzzy New York, again taking its cues from Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” which is supercharged with an absurdism that would make Marty’s “After Hours” blush.
The narrative is simple—Beau is expected to go visit his overbearing mother (a blisteringly astonishing Patti Lupone, only heard from until the last act)—but a wildly escalating series of uproarious, ever-increasing, insane circumstances begin to mount and seemingly co-conspire against him. To that end, maybe the world and everything is up against Beau, a meek, shiftless, arrested developed man who can’t say no to his mother, even when the key and luggage of his already-unsafe New York apartment have been stolen (there’s a hilarious birthing scene about the trauma of entering this awful world that is for the ages, an every time Beau has to cross a threshold of some kind, anxiety and pain seem to lurk around the corner of the frame).
Imagine a neurotic, timid, anxious Woody Allen character who has to go see his mother, and everything goes wrong, but the obstacles are all coming from the comedically twisted mind of Ari Aster.
The first long act—the film’s best—is side-splittingly funny, still tense and emotional in the way that Beau is steamrolled and traumatized by his mom either just over the phone or by her imperious presence. It also showcases Aster’s subtle cinematic skills in building hilariously uncomfortable tension with awkward close-ups, fast cuts, or shots that just linger painfully too long on someone’s face.
An accident propels Beau into the arms of a seemingly selfless (but kinda weird) couple (played by Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan), one of whom is a doctor and surgeon to heal his wounds, and their wealthy Connecticut-esque suburb. This act, or new film, arguably could be seen as a reverse Michael Haneke home invasion comedy. Rather than sinister pair bum-rushing and trapping a family, Aster’s version is an altruistic (but disquietingly compassionate) couple practically kidnapping an injured man, quickly habituating him into their home, and attempting to indoctrinate him into their complicated family dynamic.
An escape impels a new storyline that gets weirder, more abstract, and more thematic—about parent-imposed guilt, control, and those who are adult orphans abandoned by their parents, not because of death but because of their unholy dysfunctions— surreal and strange. Without laundry listing further, what might be seen as acts three to five are where the film seems to dissolve away from traditional narrative, perhaps resembling more of the feverishly desolate and miserablist dreams of Charlie Kaufman and floating in a more surrealist, out-there space.
Aster’s film gets baggier in these sections, the three-hour length begins to reveal itself, and any audience member with impatient (or philistine) tendencies might grow deeply frustrated with the film if they haven’t been annoyed with it the entire time. Now, “Beau Is Afraid” is largely brilliant, easily Aster’s most challenging and difficult film to date—hence the reason it probably didn’t debut at a film festival, which honestly would have been terrible for a movie like this that needs to marinate in the mind—but it may not be for all audiences.
And furthermore, while Aster’s film veers towards the despondent and weary and takes a long time to tell itself, the filmmaker’s still very much in control of the story he’s telling, how he’s telling it, and how he’s chosen to consciously shapeshift the movie as if it’s gone stream of conscious narrative. Featuring great appearances by supporting cast members Stephen McKinley Henderson, Parker Posey, Michael Gandolfini, Zoe Lister-Jones, and Richard Kind, “Beau Is Afraid” is like the third album where the rock band decided to push the envelope, go a little concept record and maybe indulge in some psychedelics while they try on some new genres and are supremely buzzed.
It doesn’t always work—and the last third may test some less tolerant moviegoers—but it snaps back to attention as needed, still holds great humor and profoundly twisted laughs, and definitely keeps its eye on its mommy dearest themes no matter how eccentric, grotesque, dreamlike, and off-piste it gets (the last act is a perverse atom bomb revelation, a last act twist, and an amusingly warped put-on).
“Beau Is Afraid” might be a little overstuffed in spots—though, like A24 probably thought, I don’t know where you cut this thing down without ruining it— and may feel a little drained by the end. But it’s a deeply artistic and ambitious odyssey. A simple tale told in Homeric style via Ari Aster’s epically peculiar aspiration, demonstrably bigger budget, and goal to dream nightmarishly big.
As per usual, Joaquin Phoenix can do no wrong, proving he can literally inhabit any role like the odd duck chameleon he is (suffice to say, he is both brilliant, heartbreaking, and laugh-out-loud funny with an amazing sense of clownish timing; the best actor of his generation by some measure). Wild swings shouldn’t be graded favorably because they’re wild swings. Ambition alone doesn’t serve a film if it doesn’t have some meat and bones to prop it up. And Aster’s third feature-length has all the goods, even when it overcooks itself in some unreal self-indulgence. Ultimately, Aster just unleashes his inner freak and vomits it all on the screen, with anxious flop sweat, jittery bodily fluids, squishy terror, paranoia, and some gut-busting laughs that prove this writer is deeply troubled in the best and most complicated odd way possible. [A-]