Beau is Afraid (2023)

April 26th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Ari Aster | Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Hayley Squires, Denis Menochet, Kylie Rogers, Parker Posey, Patti LuPone | US Thriller

America has always led the world into the future, and that future has now become a present day dystopia. Or so Ari Aster would have us believe in his third feature that plays out like a cinematic version of The Scream on replay.

Joaquin Phoenix is utterly compelling as the connective tissue holding the wreckage together. Beau is Afraid is at times tragic, unwatchable and hilarious in its depiction of a wounded soul caught in the car crash of modern life. 

Petty criminals, noisy neighbours, druggies, weirdos and psychopaths inhabit this thriller that scratches at the edges of horror in showing how truly ghastly the modern world has become, and those within it. At least through the eyes of Beau Wassermann (Phoenix) a long-suffering and likeable middle-aged man traumatised and suffocated from birth by his domineering mother, and living out a hellish and lonely existence in a squalid urban dive. This often feels like Aster’s most personal film to date, and despite glints of dark humour he takes his main character’s trauma seriously: a man whose earnest attempts to please his mother are simply misinterpreted by her unassuageable need for a different kind of filial love. 

Beau, on medication and totally reliant on his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), has planned to visit his mother Mona (LuPone) but misses his flight, incurring further maternal disapproval. When he finally gets his act together she has died in a tragic accident the enigmatic circumstances of which push Beau into emotional meltdown, unleashing an epic chain of bizarre misadventures that are both beautiful and brutal by turns. And the brief moments of relief inexorably lead to more heartache or pain.

Being Jewish, Mona’s funeral has to take place promptly, and Beau has to be there as her treasured only son. But getting there proves a herculean task fraught with setbacks and ambivalent people, amongst them Grace and Roger (Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane), who save Beau from a terrible accident only to cause him further turmoil, along with their nasty teenage daughter, and Denis Menochet in a sadly underwritten part as a psychotic war veteran. An episode involving Hayley Squires as a wood nymph feels utterly redundant. Throughout, the world-weary Beau is back-footed and endlessly apologetic, even when the fault lies elsewhere.

Although overlong – at three hours – Aster handles the tonal shifts of Beau’s tortuous mental journey with precision assisted by his production designer Fiona Crombie and DoP Pawel Pogozelski who captures the shifting emotional landscape from Beau’s shabby urban apartment to the rosy pink glow of his recovery bedroom chez Grace and Roger; the Frank Lloyd Wright style bosky backwater Beau finally calls home and the momentous finale. Beau is the epic hero of today: his hopes constantly dashed after a potentially positive breakthrough in Phoenix’s intense yet subtle study of bewildered vulnerability. MT



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