Ari Aster‘s much-anticipated but purposely patience-testing third film is a three-hour picaresque panic attack which makes mild-mannered sack of anxiety Joaquin Phoenix run an absurd gauntlet as he tries to make it to his mother’s funeral. A frequently inventive but decadently self-indulgent wallow in the deepest recesses of a mediocre mind, Aster seems intent on inflicting a similar alienation on his audience as that suffered by his very-much-not-a-hero. Yet when the film lands, and it frequently does, the oddball pairing of director and star is a match made in a very niche heaven. The flaws are glaring, but it’s a rare occasion of a filmmaker getting absolutely free reign with a solid budget which is always to be celebrated, even if there’s more than a slight suspicion they’re taking the piss.
Beau Is Afraid begins in the same register of surreal hysteria with which Darren Aronofsky ended the similarly divisive Mother! as Phoenix’s titular Beau attempts to get through the day in an almost apocalyptically dodge neighbourhood. There are corpses bronzing in the street, fights, swathes of denizens who may be deranged, dangerous, or both, and a naked man has been attacking people with a knife. The perennially anxious Beau is leaving this hellhole behind as he’s due to visit his mother, a prospect that eases his apprehension not one jot. Due to a series of mishaps Beau misses his flight, at which mum (played alternately by a magnificently imperious Patti LuPone, and Zoe Lister-Jones in several flashbacks to Beau’s childhood) deathlessly registers her lack of surprise over the phone. When he calls her the next day, the UPS driver who answers the phone tells Beau she’s been killed in an accident; her head obliterated by a falling chandelier. Beau begins a quixotic quest to reach her funeral.
A stuffed and staggering narrative gumbo of influences and incident, it’s best experienced cold. Suffice to say it requires an actor of Phoenix’s studious intensity to vaguely hold this maelstrom of a road movie together. His Beau is a slice of Odysseus here, a wedge of John Bunyan‘s Pilgrim there, and additional flavours of befuddled Gulliver, scatological Alexander Portnoy, and the much-abused Job. The premise is an almost grotesquely stereotypical depiction of the Jewish mother and son relationship, but one so intensely heightened and twisted that it feels like some kind of zenith of the form. Beau hasn’t just been dominated by his mother, he’s a hunched, shambling shell, as if ma has moulded a vaguely human-shaped husk (with freakishly distended testicles, for reasons that become apparent) stuffed with nothing except pure anxiety.
There’s little the viewer can do but surrender to the madness. Along for the ride are the likes of Amy Ryan. Nathan Lane, Hayley Squires, and Denis Ménochet; all popping up in essentially extended cameos. Safe hands all, but the standouts beside Phoenix are the glorious LuPone, somehow enough of a force of nature to make Beau’s utter inadequacy seem plausible, and Parker Posey as Beau’s teenage love. Still every bit as luminous as she ever was, she gives a go-for-broke turn that makes one slightly sad that she’s remained a beloved cult favourite instead of a major star. Road movies are known for being about the journey instead of the destination, but between them LuPone and Posey make Beau’s ultimate destination a highlight.
With Beau is Afraid, Aster may claim to have moved away from the horror genre that made his name, but this comedy is of a type so obsidian that it still feels like a natural successor to Hereditary and Midsommar. It’s episodic nature means that the inclination would be to revisit specific, unforgettable scenes in isolation, whereas his earlier works feel like perpetual motion machines constantly escalating to a crescendo, but at its best it’s as satisfying, mischievous, and disturbing as anything in those modern classics. Already with a growing reputation for indulgence, Beau Is Afraid feels like Aster leaning into this accusation and daring the viewer to endure. Yes it’s as swollen as Beau’s elephantine bollocks, and it isn’t the sophisticated headscratcher that frequent comparisons to David Lynch and Charlie Kaufman would have you believe, but there’s a determined, demented energy with a restless authorial malevolence towards its own creation that make it a frequently compelling and hilarious experience.
In cinemas now