Ari Aster who directed Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), two great so-called “elevated” horror films, returns with an evasive, absurdist, and wildly alienating film about a man journeying to his mother’s funeral. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Beau, who is indeed quite afraid, in Beau Is Afraid, and Nathan Lane, Broadway legend Patti LuPone, Parker Posey, and Amy Ryan play supporting roles as Beau traverses a dangerous but thoroughly unrealistic world.
Beau Is Afraid is off-putting and evades accessibility, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not good. In fact, there are three sequences that work well. The beginning satirically builds an oppressive and chaotic world with people casually buying AR-15-style rifles in the background and a stark-naked murderer screaming in the streets. When Beau stays with Lane and Ryan’s characters, there are some good moments as the film explores passive-aggressive kindness in maternal figures. And any section with LuPone is a scene-stealer.
However, what’s between all the good elements – the connective tissue of this film – does not work, and it actively alienates the audience. Too much of the film is too unfocused or spends time on ideas and sequences that do not land as well as the rest. Some of the imagery is too provocative to discuss here, and ultimately, so much of the frank depictions of Freudian and Oedipal anxieties ring hollow for me.
As a whole, Beau Is Afraid is about the horror of disappointing your mother. And while that’s a universal and indeed horrible aspect of human experience, not everything about this film portrays that horror in universally compelling ways.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is one-note, which is by demand and design. Beau is a character who is defined by his anxiety, and Beau Is Afraid spends all of its time with Beau indeed quite afraid. But the film can’t sustain that over the course of the film’s three-hour runtime.
While there are some good parts to Beau Is Afraid, ultimately too much of it misses the mark. Only hardcore Aster fans will enjoy it, and anyone else should know to expect something totally absurd.