There is a delicate balancing act occurring at the center of the latest film from beloved indie darling and A24 golden boy, Ari Aster. Irrespective of Beau is Afraid’s many, many, MANY aesthetic and thematic indulgences, at its core, Aster’s three-hour surreal epic of Jewish guilt and questionable taste is either the working of a now-accomplished director who is confident he can finally actualize a long-gestating (yet scattered) dream project or the folly of a director giving in too much to his indulgences and is confident that his audience will never call him out on that fact.
Over the peaks and valleys of the main character’s sprawling, sumptuous journey, both into a cruel unfamiliar world and into his own festering neuroses, your opinion over whether Aster is capable of pulling it all off will fluctuate a lot. Ultimately though, regardless of the chaotic rendering of his scattershot vision, Aster’s followthrough is so assured as to grant him the benefit that he knows what he is doing.
As mentioned, Beau is Afraid continues with Aster’s tendency to push his protagonists through the existential wringer. Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) is no different than Hereditary’s Annie Graham or Midsommar’s Dani, in that they seem to live in a world that unilaterally targets them for tragedy; however, here, it is played off more like a cosmic joke meant to be laughed at than a point of empathy. Beau is the unfortunate byproduct born of the emotional abuse by his overbearing and industrious mother, Mona (Patti Lupone in present day and Zoe Lister-Jones in flashback), which has manifested as a litany of baggage for the maladjusted fortysomething.. After raising him on a short, strict leash that has rendered him a puddle of insecurities incapable of taking care of himself, he is suddenly motivated by unforeseeable tragedy to make it back home to his abuser on his own accord, facing a world he was always taught to be terrified of.
Aster ironically frames Beau’s pathetic, misfortune-laden journey back to his mother’s home with the ill-fitting grandeur of a quest borrowed from high fantasy. The hyperbolic misanthropy of the world Aster has built for his character to suffer through, all of which is too exaggerated in tone to carry any cogent commentary on the actual world, is broken into clearly distinct chapters that are faithful in plot structure and deliberately reminiscent of the epic trials and tribulations of a Tolkein-esque quest. While each of these stopping points on Beau’s journey tend to endure just up to the point of belaboring the joke, Aster impressively keeps his myriad of themes in check and focuses his narrative in a clear, if wide-swinging, trajectory.
Even when, say, the sequence where Beau is gaslit into becoming a surrogate son for an eccentric pair of overbearing bereaved parents (Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane) begins to drag, or the stunning, illusory animated fantasy sequence by way of The Wolf House directing duo Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña manages to last literal lifetimes, you’re already so invested in Aster’s eclectic-yet-bleak imagination and the grandiose methods he uses to achieve it with that you feel like you need to just ride it out. Every formal element he pulls out of his collaborators – from Pawel Pogorzelski’s crisp, turgid cinematography to the lavish theatricality of the production design – instills a trust that Aster is always building toward something.
Chief among these collaborations is the one with the notoriously selective Phoenix, who tunes into Aster’s bizarre wavelength in an almost symbiotic manner. When the moment calls for it, Phoenix’s Beau can lower himself to unfathomable depths of pitiable self-loathing but always manages to find the right reaction for her flagellations. Aster’s script remains firmly ambiguous over whether Beau is meant to be a humorous object for our scorn or a beleaguered underdog to be empathized with, but through Phoenix’s committed presence, he is able to drag shockingly gritty emotional moments out of Beau is Afraid’s aggressive sense of detached irony.
His physicality and embodiment of a hysteric penitence, as Aster drags him through a Semitic hell by way of his mommy issues, prevents you from pulling your eyes away from the chaos. While it is an anchoring performance, the fact that Beau is written as a feeble waif means a cast of scene stealers (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Richard Kind, Parker Posey, etc.) can play off his eccentricities and fill the space he leaves open.
Aster juggles a lot of aberrant ideas in Beau is Afraid, and your willingness to indulge him in his many excesses will vary depending on whether or not you can see the threads between those ideas he is keeping in the air. But what is crucial here, is that – even through the numerous bizarre digressions, aesthetic posturing, and “for its own sake” indulgences – Aster never drops any of the balls he is desperately juggling. That anxiety over an enterprise that could at any moment topple under the weight of its own glut is masterfully imbued through the entire film and through Beau Wasserman’s hopeless trudge back to the metaphoric womb.
While Beau is in no way a “career killer,” as some have assumed, it carries the same devil-may-care, “this one is for me” repudiation of conventional taste that eventually made Richard Kelley’s Southland Tales and David Rober Mitchell’s Under the Silver the Lake beloved cult artifacts. Time will tell if Aster’s shameless feeling of his own powers will pan out in the same way, but for now, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting him on his outlandish level today instead of catching up years down the line.