Ari Aster is a director who suffers from a bad case of David Lynch envy. His previous two features, Hereditary and Midsommar, were unusual enough to appeal to those with cultish tastes, but Beau is Afraid is more Twin Peaks than Twin Peaks. Alas, multiple peaks also entail multiple troughs, and this film lingers most of the time at the bottom of the scale.
We spend a minute shy of three hours wondering WTF is going on, as Joaquin Phoenix is dragged through one violent, traumatic incident after another. If there were an award for the most pathetic, passive, limp dishcloth of a character to star in a movie this year, Phoenix’s Beau would be the unbackable favourite. At one point we learn he is 48 years old (Phoenix’s real age) but he appears a good 20 years older – grey, balding, blank-faced. He is frequently too stunned to speak, but when he does it’s in a thin, wheedling falsetto that whines an apology.
The film begins with the moment of Beau’s birth, which feels more like a missile bombardment, with his mother muttering angrily in the background. We segue to an office, where middle-aged Beau talks to his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), about an impending visit to his mother. Already we recognise an Oedipal theme arising like a tsunami on the horizon. We are also given the key to Beau’s personality, scribbled by the therapist on his notepad: “guilty”.
Things get weirder very quickly when Beau returns to his apartment, in a neighbourhood where corpses lie rotting in the middle of the road, and everybody seems intent on murdering everybody else. The streets are filled with derelicts, dead-eyed junkies, and vicious psychopaths. To get into his building, Beau has to run like mad to escape a heavily tattooed would-be assailant.
One wonders why anybody would willingly live in such a place, but like so much in this film, that quandary remains unresolved. A bizarre misunderstanding with a neighbour keeps Beau awake all night, then he oversleeps and has to hurry to catch his plane. Yet when he leaves his keys in the door and rushes back to fetch his dental floss, both keys and suitcase disappear. Now he can’t leave the apartment and has to break the news to his mother who takes it badly. When he rings her again, he finds she has been killed by a falling chandelier. Totally deranged by this news he is now obliged to set off straight away, but not before another mishap allows the zombies and psychos from down below to make their way inside the building and wreak havoc.
Running into the street, Beau is hit by a car, and when he awakes, finds he has been ‘adopted’ by the people who ran into him – a surgeon named Roger and his wife, Grace (Nathan Lane & Amy Ryan). He is lying in their daughter’s bedroom, covered in stitches and bandages. it feels idyllic, for a moment, but this nuclear family is in meltdown. I’ll spare you the details.
Having fled his benefactors in fear of his life, Beau gets lost in the woods. He is assisted by a young, pregnant woman (Hayley Squiers) who takes him back to her nomadic community, made up of orphans who have become travelling players. When Beau sits down to watch a play, he finds it is all about him – a fable of his fantasy life that unfurls in a long, animated sequence.
The final part of the film finds Beau back at his ancestral home at last, in the town of Wasserman, named after his mother, Mona (Zoe Lister-Jones, then Patti Lupone), who built a business empire around herself. In his mother’s house all the fears Beau has been harbouring come crashing down, just when it seemed as if things were looking up.
I can’t tell you more about the plot without giving away the twists, surprises and salient details that may be the only reason many will sit through this saga to the end. The great selling point of Beau is Afraid is simply that one never knows what will happen next. A secondary consideration is: “How the hell will this end?” Finally, there’s a faint hope that Aster will somehow explain the rationale behind this rambling fantasy. Ha!
Abandon all thoughts of realism, ye who enter here. Beau is Afraid comes across as one long hallucination, or perhaps a bad LSD trip. It might have been made to be screened at a psychoanalytical conference, with participants invited to submit papers.
Although the story gives the immediate impression of a series of disjointed incidents, with Beau-as-victim being the only common thread, upon reflection one one can see that it’s tightly plotted – stuffed with mythological and literary references; cunning minutiae such as the initials ‘MW’ popping up everywhere, and strategic repetitions of key motifs. One of these is a bath tub. There’s also a testicular theme, but don’t expect me to elaborate. Most crucially there is the trauma associated with the sexual act, as Beau’s mother has told him how his father died of a heart attack at the very moment he was conceived on their virgin wedding night. She says it’s a trait passed down through the male line for generations, sending her son a very clear message: sex = death.
As Jewish mothers go, Mona Wasserman is a kind of evil mutant, descended from Medea via Mommy Dearest. We see her in various roles, acting flirtatiously with Beau or tearing him to shreds. In flashback she seems to encourage a teenage romance wth a girl named Elaine (Julia Antonelli, then Parker Posey), but really intends him to have no other idols but herself. Her life’s work has been to make Beau feel guilty about everything, and in this she has been an outstanding success. Phoenix has given us one of the saddest, most jelly-like personalities ever to appear on screen.
There’ll be people who tell you how great this film is, but I’m not one of them. If your idea of fun is three hours of incomprehensible trauma and guilt, structured in an archly clever way, then Beau is Afraid should provide a glorious night at the pictures. How fortuitous it’s just in time for Mother’s Day.
Beau is Afraid
Written & directed by Ari Aster
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Kylie Rogers, Denis Ménochet, Patti LuPone, Parker Posey, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Hayley Squires, Armen Nahapetian, Julia Antonelli, Zoe Lister-Jones, Richard Kind
Canada/Finland/USA, R 18+, 179 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 April, 2023