Beau is Afraid starts at the literal beginning. Our title character emerges from the womb, but just like the rest of Ari Aster’s new disorienting and upsetting film, this is no conventional birthing scene. The film’s first black frame fades into a translucent pinkish-red before suddenly emerging into a sterile-white room full of giant masked men and women rushing to resuscitate the oddly quiet baby whose POV we’ve shockingly become privy to. This is how deeply we’re embedded in the mindset of Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), a perpetually anxious doormat of a man who embarks on a strange epic journey.
Nothing is certain in Beau is Afraid. Reality might be a dream, your most cherished moments may be a delusion, and one’s deepest, darkest insecurities might actually be a projection of an overbearing mother. The only true certainty in Aster’s freaky, perverse odyssey is that the world is a terrifying place.
When we pick up with Beau as an adult, he’s become a tightly-wound bundle of complexes who can barely step foot outside his apartment. But as Aster’s camera studiously follows Beau from his unhelpful session with an overly placid therapist through the dangerous streets and into his derelict apartment building, it’s clear that Beau’s whole world is a little off.
The streets are littered with trash and dead bodies. Storefront signs advertise boobs, drugs, and death with equal amounts of glee. TV news anchors drolly report the latest casualties of a nude serial killer who terrorizes the town with impunity. And armies of homeless drug addicts casually murder each other in broad daylight. Beau essentially lives in a heightened version of conservative America’s worst nightmare of New York City, which the film treats with cool impartiality and a dash of magical realism.
It’s enough to make the already meek Beau feel especially helpless as he shuffles through his life and attempts to ready himself for his biggest challenge: getting on a plane to visit his mother. But one unfortunate event follows after the other. Beau’s keys are stolen, he misses his plane, and his apartment is invaded and trashed. When he receives a phone call with the worst news of his life, Beau must race back to his mother’s house or face the consequences.
Beau is Afraid feels like a warped product of the world’s most anxious mind, in the best way possible. This is Aster’s most audacious and deranged movie yet — a movie so weird it makes Midsommar and Hereditary seem like conventional horror flicks. Deeply disturbed and deeply funny, Beau is Afraid is a three-hour anxiety attack that doubles as a modern retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, except its hero is just trying to get back to his mother’s house.
While his previous two films are more focused, there’s a gumption to Aster’s “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. The viewer has no choice but to accept every wild tonal shift and surreal twist, or risk feeling perpetually bewildered. That Beau is Afraid was Aster’s first script (written before he made Hereditary) makes total sense. It feels like a germ of an idea dreamed up by a young man and executed by a less-young man, now with a subconscious littered with ennui, like sticky fly paper that caught onto every stray regret in life. It lends to the scattered odyssey of Beau’s journey, which flickers back and forth between his youth and his adulthood, and between his worst dreams and worser memories. It’s a thoroughly unpleasant experience, and yet… Beau is Afraid is a revelation.
Aster lays bare his weirdest insecurities with striking beauty and confident vision. The nightmare of Beau’s crime-ridden urban life gives way to even more uncanny locations: a Pepto Bismol-pink suburban house where an overly hospitable surgeon and his wife (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan, both perfectly unsettling) take him in, the eerie woods where he meets a group of fae-like traveling performers, and his mother’s museum-like house full of testaments to her greatness and evidence of his suffocating childhood.
But the most incredible section of the film is a picturebook-like sequence animated by Cristóbal León & Joaquín Cociña (Wolf House) in which Beau imagines another, equally tragic direction his life might have taken. It’s a breathtaking stop-motion scene that turns a pit stop into the cathartic climax of the movie — before Aster rips the rug from right underneath it. Because for Beau and his codependent relationship with his overbearing mother (the younger version given a snappy impatience by Zoe Lister-Jones, the older version played as a tyrannical terror by Patti LuPone), emotional release is the enemy. Eternal shame is the only solution.
Joaquin Phoenix is terrific as Beau, making his dazed, spineless Odysseus into a sympathetic, if pitiful, hero — if only in his desperation to reach the end of his journey. Phoenix is one of the great actors of our time, and he’s never felt more relatable than as this terrified ball of anxiety. His younger self is almost too well-cast as Armen Nahapetian (who is not, in fact, a de-aged Phoenix), in a flashback sequence that threatens to tip the film over into surreal nonsense.
And while I can’t say that Aster manages to thread the needle between surreal nonsense and surreal inspiration without a hitch, I can say that there’s no film like Beau is Afraid — at least on this side of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. It’s a gonzo odyssey for our times, a rejection of mediocre cinema, and a paean for all the perverted weirdos out there. This one’s for you, sickos.