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.