Producers: Lars Knudsen and Ari Aster Director: Ari Aster Screenplay: Ari Aster Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Kylie Rogers, Denis Ménochet, Parker Posey, Zoe Lister-Jones, Armen Nahapetian, Julia Antonelli, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Richard Kind and Hayley Squires Distributor: A24
There are plenty of striking images in Ari Aster’s third film, but they’re all part of an epic odyssey that ultimately proves a grossly self-indulgent exercise in simplistic Freudian psycho-babble. The story they combine to tell is a threadbare affair—a zonked-out “Mommy Dearest” tale revved up to absurd proportions and played as sour black comedy. (It isn’t for nothing that a statue of Madonna and Child becomes a motif in various forms.)
The Beau of the title is Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), a timid, or rather preternaturally and perpetually terrified, fellow. The picture opens literally with a bang as he’s born, with his mother Mona (played in her younger years by Zoe Lister-Jones, and later by Patti LuPone) screaming not with joy but fury. We’ll learn later that Beau’s father had died at the moment of his conception, and that Beau has inherited his heart murmur. No wonder he’s petrified at the thought of having sex.
Beau lives alone in a scummy apartment located in a nightmarish urban hellscape, afraid to venture out into streets populated by throngs of scary people—like the over-tattooed guy who chases him maniacally—and, reportedly, by a naked knife-wielding slasher who roams unimpeded. He does find some brief solace in the presence of his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who prescribes a new medication for anxiety relief, since he’s about to catch a plane visit his mother on the anniversary of his father’s demise. The therapist also asks, blithely, whether he drams of killing his mother. Beau is shocked at the suggestion.
But everything then goes wrong for poor Beau. Chased back into his apartment by that tattooed wild man, he finds the dilapidated, graffiti-blighted building has become home to a dangerous spider, and his sleep is ruined by an unseen neighbor’s slew of notes demanding that he turn down the music, though he’s not playing any, and by that neighbor’s audio retaliation. The next morning he oversleeps, and in a rush to pack and leave for the airport discovers that his key has been stolen. He phones Mona to explain his delay, but after taking his medication—which the doctor has ordered must be taken with water—discovers that the water has been turned off. Venturing out to buy bottled water at a convenience store, he watches in horror as the building—and his apartment in particular—are taken over by the street mob. After spending the night outside, he goes back to his apartment, where he tries to take a bath, only to have a man clinging to the ceiling fall on him. Beau runs into the street naked and screaming, but not only runs into the knife-wielding serial killer but is hit by a truck.
If all this sounds like too much, rest assured it’s only the beginning of Beau’s journey to a reckoning with his past. There follow two long, bizarre episodes offering different perspectives on family. In the first, he’s treated at their home by the couple who hit him with their truck—Roger (Nathan Lane), a gregarious surgeon, and his entrepreneur wife Grace (Amy Ryan), who put him in the room of their hostile teen daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers). The home is a cartoonish portrait of weird suburban life, in which the couple also host a demented veteran named Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), who served with their son, who died, they repeatedly say, in Caracas.
Despite the insistence of Mona’s lawyer Dr. Cohen (Richard Kind) that he come to his mother’s home immediately, Beau finds his departure delayed by Roger and Grace, and his safety endangered by Toni. So he takes off on his own, pursued by Jeeves, winding up in a dark wood, though whether what he finds there is divine or infernal is debatable. Invited to join them by Penelope (Haley Squires), a member of an experimental theatre company, he sits enthralled by a play, transformed into a combination of live action and colorful animation provided by Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León, in which Beau himself plays a man who grows old searching for the three sons (Michael Gandolfini, Théodore Pellerin and Mike Taylor) he has lost. While he watches, he’s approached by a stranger who insists that his father is actually alive, and when the play is disrupted by the raging Jeeves, he escapes and makes his way to his mother’s house.
Up to this point the supposedly chronological order of events has been periodically interrupted by flashbacks in which the young Beau (Armen Nahapetian) alternately is suffocated with affection by his mother or suffers at her hands, and an episode in which he nervously grows close to a far more forward teen girl, Elaine (Julia Antonelli), who, when she’s torn away from him, beseeches him to wait for her. Now he’s reunited with both of the women from his past (Elaine now played by Parker Posey and Mona by the ferocious LuPone), and, in a surrealistic scene, with his father as well, though in a very peculiar form. A confrontation with Mona leads to a trial of sorts in which Beau’s life is scrutinized and he is found wanting.
One has to admit that Aster, who became a cult hero with his first film, the effective horror entry “Hereditary,” but stumbled with his second, “Midsommer,” here gives free rein to his imagination in what can only be interpreted as a continuing effort to examine what genealogy means in human affairs. Nor can it be denied that his cast and crew have given their all to realize his peculiar vision on screen. Though Beau doesn’t provide Phoenix much opportunity to demonstrate his wide range (as contrasted with his ability to embody an utterly tortured soul), he remains compulsively watchable even as the character becomes a bit of a bore. The rest of the cast supply full-bodied performances—in the case of LuPone, Ménochet, Kind, and some of the lesser players, arguably too much so; Lane is, as usual, the consummate pro.
And the look of the film is quite amazing. Fiona Crombie’s production design is breathtaking, in a completely artificial way, Alice Babidge’s costumes are exemplary (down to LuPone’s black high heels), and Pawel Pogorzelski’s bright cinematography adds to the unreal feel of it all; the León-Cociña animation is exquisite, and the effects by Louis Morin fine. Booby Krlic’s score is unobtrusively effective. As for Lucian Johnston’s editing, it can hardly be blamed for the film’s bloated running-time, just under three hours, including the final credit crawl. It’s Aster’s script and direction that must be saddled with that.
But the production company must also shoulder some responsibility. Studios, even boutique ones, have apparently forgotten the lesson, taught by Michael Cimino and “Heaven’s Gate,” that it can be a mistake to coddle young directors, even those who have enjoyed some well-merited success. So we get major failures like Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” and now this large-scale misfire. It’s somehow appropriate that “Beau Is Afraid” ends, as it began, with an explosive burst, since it’s pretty much a bomb. Aster’s devoted cult followers may embrace it as some sort of off-the-wall masterpiece, but the truth is that, despite that loud finale, the cruelly overextended last act, which makes an obvious point though gussied up with perversely comic touches, brings it to a close not with a bang but the kind of pitiful whimper that Beau himself might have emitted.