Ari Aster’s newest is an uncompromising, messy journey into uncomfortable terrain.
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.”
Thus begins Phillip Larkin’s most famous poem, “This Be the Verse,” still as shocking to see today as it was when first printed over 50 years ago. The poem shocked both because of the language, but also the earnestness with which it attacks a universal experience. Our parents, no matter how much they love us and we love them, are a product of their own experiences and are imperfect people, incapable of creating new perfect people. Such is the reality of parenting: that you try your best to raise someone to be the best version of themselves, but you inevitably imprint your own weirdness that you inherited from your parents who, to turn a phrase, fucked you up.
Acclaimed writer-director Ari Aster is likely very familiar with “This Be the Verse.” After all, stories of families and how families inevitably scar us reoccur throughout his work. His short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is a harrowing portrayal of familial sexual abuse, while his feature debut Hereditary explores how a family’s secret history has unforeseeable consequences. Midsommar, Aster’s best film to date, is about how an isolated group can appear strange to outsiders but can provide vital support to those on the inside. His newest film Beau is Afraid is basically “This Be the Verse” in filmed format—but far stranger.
The Beau in question is Beau Wasserman, (Joaquin Phoenix), a mumbling, ineffectual man-child who lives in his run-down apartment while the world appears to be going to hell around him (though how much of his decaying urban environment is real or imagined is difficult to determine). Beau is plagued with anxiety, insecurity, and uncertainty about how to engage with the world on the most basic level, down to how to pay for a bottle of water. He is noncommittal to his therapist and only appears to leave home to visit his overbearing mother Mona, (Broadway legend Patti LuPone).
But when Beau’s latest trip to see his mother is delayed due to his keys being stolen, tragedy strikes and Mona is killed in a horrific chandelier accident. Devastated, Beau has to get home as others sit shiva, as his mother’s will stipulates she won’t be buried until her only son arrives. With Beau, nothing ever goes his way: He both gets hit by a van and is the victim of a stabbing attack on his journey, and is taken in by Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane). The perhaps overly kind couple nurse him to health, but what seems like good fortune turns into yet another series of nightmares.
To get much more into the details is edging into deep waters for Beau is Afraid, a film that is somehow both barely a narrative feature and also built almost exclusively on the novelty of never quite knowing what is going to occur next. Aster’s ability to build tension into his world-building has always been a strength, and is the engine that runs through the entire enterprise of Beau is Afraid. As Beau journeys to get back to his mother, we journey with him through a very adult fairy tale, discovering increasingly distressing edges to the world that the film inhabits. It is no wonder that Beau is afraid—his world seems terrifying.
Of course, there is another reason Beau is afraid: Mona, who is portrayed in flashbacks by Zoe Lister-Jones as intimidating and unnerving, always soft-spoken but with a real sense of forceful control. Through horror stories of his own conception, Beau is terrified to start a family out of fear that he will die if he even attempts to have sex. This psychosexual dysfunction fuels Beau’s ties to his mother, and in her sudden fatal departure, Beau finds himself unsure what his future actually holds.
As a whole, Beau is Afraid is both exciting and frustrating. Seeing Aster spread his wings and make some truly bizarre art seems like a major step forward for a filmmaker who has only made masterpieces up to this point. But Beau is easily his worst film, partially because of its sprawling run time (it hits at almost three hours) and a lack of focus that is present in Hereditary and Midsommar. There are a lot of parts to love: Phoenix’s performance across the epic journey, a dazzling pseudo-animated segment in the middle where Beau imagines his life without his dysfunctions, and a familiar streak of bleak Aster humor throughout. But an expanded budget (at an estimated $35 to $55 million, A24’s largest yet) brings with it a sense of excess that often meanders and never fully congeals into a singular piece. Put bluntly, Beau is Afraid is a bit of a mess, a barely contained parade of ideas that sometimes grabs you, but just as easily loses its grip.
As is often the case with A24 films, however, it is uncompromising. This is clearly the film Aster wanted to make at this point in his career, and for that alone it is admirable. It is rare today that we get a truly singular vision. For Aster, we get the portrait of a shell of a man wandering back to bury his mother and unpacking what all that actually means. It is thorny at parts, inspiring elsewhere, and often simmering with not-so-quiet resentments. The end result may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but the journey is worth taking.