Beau Is Afraid
by Hope Madden
Is Ari Aster all right?
Asking as a fan who is starting to think Hereditary was autobiographical.
Aster’s new 3-hour self-indulgent opus Beau Is Afraid revisits the scene of his 7-minute 2011 short film Beau, in which a middle-aged man loses his keys and is delayed in his plan to visit his mother.
For his exponentially longer feature, Aster employs the inarguably brilliant Joaquin Phoenix.
Phoenix is Beau Isaac Wasserman from Wasserton and he is living a nightmare of undiluted Freudian scope. Things seem fine as we open on his session with his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson, slyly hilarious), who prescribes some new meds. But Beau’s walk back to his apartment is a descent into Escape from New York territory. Escalating tension leads to a naked, corpse-leaping, maniac-fleeing car accident that lands Beau in the highly medicated home of Roger (Nathan Lane, an absolute treat) and Grace (Amy Ryan, always welcome).
But he needs to get to his mom’s house.
Aster generates much of the same kind of primal, ceaseless tension of the Safdies’ Uncut Gems or Aronofsky’s Mother. But he embraces the absurdity of it all in a way the others did not. At times, his film is astonishingly beautiful. There’s a surreal theatricality to the middle portion that’s stunning, but even the comparatively mundane scenes are shot gorgeously.
And as odd as they are, performances throughout are great. Patti LuPone, Kylie Rogers, Parker Posey, Zoe Lister-Jones, Armen Nahapetian, Hayley Squires, Richard Kind, Julian Richlings and a barely glimpsed but nonetheless memorable Bill Hader all add intrigue as they populate Beau’s increasingly desperate and blisteringly imaginative quest to get to his mom’s place.
But damn, it is long. And it asks a lot. Beau Is Afraid is essentially a 3-hour string of traumatic dream sequences, beautiful but shapeless, leading to something out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. And if Hereditary triggered your mother issues, for the love of God, do not see Beau Is Afraid.
The similarities between Aster’s 2018 horror are legion: the house, the attic, the physically beaten son, a headless body – you’re almost waiting for Mona (LuPone) to deliver the line “I am your mother!”
All told, Beau Is Afraid is a fascinating, gorgeously realized vision and I don’t think you’re going to like it. I can’t say I liked it. I admire it, am stunned by it, and kind of want to see it again. Maybe I do like it, I can’t tell.
One thing I know for sure, Aster is still working some shit out.