Review: Beau Is Afraid

Score: A-

Director: Ari Aster

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Parker Posey

Running Time: 179 Minutes

Rated: R

Like Damien Chazelle just did with Babylon, Ari Aster has called in all his favors for a deeply personal, three-hour descent into hell. Gorgeous, entertaining and lovely scenes butt up against thoroughly unpleasant, anxiety-inducing nightmares. These are massive swings from mostly respected directors.

But Beau Is Afraid is a far uglier, more surreal trip, by design. If the relationship issues expressed through horror in Hereditary and Midsommar didn't work for you, you ain't seen nothing yet. In fact, this is likely to be the single most divisive movie since Darren Aronofsky's Mother.

Joaquin Phoenix continues his spectacular run of challenging performances, and this may just be his best turn yet. He's in nearly every frame for three straight hours. Tormented by home invaders, knife-wielding killers and suspiciously nice caretakers, there's barely a moment for him to catch his breath, let alone process his emotions. But the specter hanging over him throughout is his mother (played in present day by Patti LuPone and in flashbacks by Zoe Lister-Jones). Her ability to guilt trip may as well be a superpower. Their phone conversations set my teeth on edge, as she uses silence and tone to manipulate her only son into doing her bidding.

Beau's journey starts off disastrously, then only gets more physically and emotionally painful. Stops along his way hearken back to films as wildly different as Misery, Big Fish and A Serious Man. And Aster also has plenty of biblical allusions too, including Noah, Moses and especially Job. But all these horrific things don't make it a horror movie. Instead of the more common themes of possession and human sacrifice, the horror here is mostly existential. If you're like me and fear helplessness, blame and spiders, you may find this even more frightening than Aster's past works.

Yet Beau Is Afraid also packs in a lot of laughs for people on its wavelength. Visual gags like AR-15's sold at a farmer's market, a trial put on in a giant stadium, and literally monstrous genitals may be off-putting to a large swath of the audience. But I found myself laughing almost as often as I was cringing. Aster's overlapping terror and humor collide in a sex scene set to Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby," which ran the gamut from erotic to hilarious to devastating in the span of just a few minutes.

As the film ended, I had two thoughts. One: This is an impressive yet messy film. Two: I have no idea to whom I could recommend this. If you've seen the trailer and expect a quirky comedy about a guy trying to get home, you're bound to be surprised, but just as possibly enraged or dumbfounded. This is a movie designed to keep you off-balance throughout, with some scenes so harrowing I don't know if I could ever revisit them. But if viewers have patience for all its surreal detours, mommy issues and sexual hang-ups, this is a fantastic journey.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.