Be afraid — be very afraid — of accidentally walking into a showing.
Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) fears everything, stunted to the point he can’t make the simplest decision without help. His apartment is in a crime-infested XXX theater district straight out of 1970s NYC Times Square, populated by the dregs of humanity. His sole escape is seeing his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), often discussing Beau’s single-parent relationship with his mother (Patti LuPone) while growing up. When his planned trip to visit his mom on the anniversary of his father’s death goes awry due to circumstances beyond his control, it tips the first domino over into a series of events seemingly orchestrated to crush what little of Beau’s soul may be left.
Remember writer/director Ari Aster? Garnering significant praise for his freshman film Hereditary — A24’s highest grossing film before Everything Everywhere took the crown — and arguably launching the career of Florence Pugh with his daylight folk horror movie MidSommar, his newest work features Joaquin Phoenix channeling his mild-mannered turn from Her into a shit-magnet justifiably afraid of everything there’s a phobia for. Aster’s secret weapon is cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski who’s worked on all three of the director’s films — a smart decision equally employed by auteur Terrence Malick to make everything cinematic (wink-wink, nudge-nudge). While film is primarily a visual medium not necessarily constrained by narrative requirements, a synopsis describing what a film is about is akin to a contract with a potential audience in much the same way a movie trailer is: “Here’s just a taste; would you like to order the meal?” If it is the filmmaker’s intent to rip the carpet out from under viewers, shouldn’t there be a damn good reason why?
The character of Beau is an archetype, the mild-mannered loser bullied by everyone merely because it’s a safe bet he won’t fight back — a gamble since no one knows when said loser will finally snap and justifiably rage out — but what if the character is rendered even incapable of that? On the verge of getting a much-deserved break or finally standing up for himself, those moments for Beau are fleeting at worst and gut-wrenching at best. It’s reminiscent of the Looney Tunes short “Duck Amuck,” where, unlike Beau, Daffy is allowed to break the fourth wall and voice his discontentment over being relentlessly tormented by the guest cartoonist. In a noteworthy performance, Phoenix suffers convincingly throughout the film, looking haunted and fearful to the depths of his soul, and herein lies the key problem. The emotional fortitude to dismiss Beau’s horrors as humor renders the character meaningless, while viewers hoping for anything positive toward the protagonist will be punished swiftly and repeatedly for daring to care.
If the creator’s delight in publicly bullying his creation is in fact the point, there are few viewers who’ll champion this as high art… and everyone else will see it for the nihilistic psychological torture-porn it is. Hilarious, right? Joining in on the so-called fun are Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan as questionably good Samaritans, Julian Richings as “Strange Man,” Bill Hader’s voice as “some random UPS guy who answered the phone,” Richard Kind, Parker Posey, and Zoe Lister-Jones in… let’s just say “other roles.” And in case anyone gets the idea this R-rated epic-length feature is just terrible things befalling poor Beau, there is plenty of visceral horror, too, with Aster’s favorite go-to: head trauma. Be sure to eat a full meal before going to see the film, because no one likes experiencing dry heaves if you need to toss your proverbial cookies.
There are at least four distinctive possibilities as to what the director was going for. Option one: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” re-imagined as an absurdist decent into a personal Hell. It all makes sense in that it doesn’t have to make sense, because it’ll end the same way no matter what insanity goes on for three hours. Option two: what if Wes Anderson directed a film written by M. Night Shyamalan? Zombie dead-pan delivery and absurdist humor with bursts of wanton horror… and for three smug hours! Option three: Aster decided to make a personal film dedicated to Sigmund Freud after being inspired by gas station bathroom graffiti. Option four (and a personal favorite): Ari Aster actually tortured Joaquin Phoenix for three hours, secretly recording his genuine reactions in what was supposed to be a mere casting call, then settled out of court for the lion’s share of the film’s budget. The twist is Phoenix got paid to endure it… but audiences won’t.
Beau Is Afraid is rated R for strong violent content, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, language, and being a giant dick to everyone.
Zero skull recommendation out of four
“What’s it about again?” “A man who’s afraid.” “Why is he afraid?” “Because all these terrible things are happening to him.” “Why doesn’t he do something about it?” “He’s not equipped to.” “So he does nothing the whole time?” “No, he’s trying to get home.” “Wasn’t he already at home?” “No, the one where he grew up with his mom.” “Why doesn’t he ask her for help?” “She’s kind of the cause of all his fear.” “Then why is he going home?” “For her funeral.” “So he’s not afraid anymore?” “No, he still is.” “Why?” “Because the damage is already done.” “So there’s no hope for him?” “It’s not about that; it’s about understanding his fears.” “Why do I need to understand them?” “So you can relate.” “I’m not afraid of my mom.” “But he is, and that’s the point.” “And that takes three hours?” “Look, it’s a metaphor…”