‘Beau Is Afraid’ Hurtles Joaquin Phoenix Into Ari Aster’s Freudian Madhouse

In the same way that films can bring dreams to life, they can also give shape to profound psychological states. A director can put their hopes and therapy battles right there on the screen, even both at once. Ari Aster’s “Beau Is Afraid” is destined to become an endless talking point. Long, maddening, self-indulgent and kind of brilliant at the same time, it’s an auteur going for broke in sharing with us what amounts to his mommy issues. One viewing may not be enough to take it all in. Aster, who has gained a reputation as a horror director of hallucinatory skill, changes course for shades of dark comedy and the scarier recesses of one’s subconscious.

Joaquin Phoenix is the Beau of the title, once more evoking a face that registers mental turmoil. He is introduced as the ultimate terrified city dweller, huddled in a rundown apartment located in a downtown straight out of Hieronymus Bosch or Goya. Outside, drug addicts crowd the streets along with the homeless, naked madmen and grouchy store owners. Beu might venture out in a hurry to get some water because taking his medication without it could mean death. On the phone he speaks with his smothering, overbearing mother, Mona (Patti LuPone). She is irritated he won’t visit. Then, oh horror, Beau gets a call from a UPS delivery man who makes a shocking revelation. Now Beau has no choice and must rush to see mom. Getting out won’t be easy when chaos ensues and Beau, running naked through the streets, is attacked. When he awakens under the care of a mysterious suburban couple, it is just the beginning of his tortured attempts to get back home.

Until now, Aster’s reputation has rested on two modern standards of what is termed “elevated horror,” the satanic haunted house opus “Hereditary” and trippy “Midsommar.” Both are nightmarish, effective thrillers with lucid plots, even when diving into wild twists. “Beau Is Afraid” is closer to psychological journeys in the style of Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” The seeds of the concept were established in Aster’s early work making short films with 2011’s “Beau,” also about a man trapped by terrors in his apartment. In this feature, there is an inciting incident and purpose to Beau’s journey, but what counts are the feelings, inner scars and emotional expressions taking place. There is no cliché when calling this Aster’s most personal work. You can feel his anxieties and demons in every frame. He is an accomplished director, financially successful to be certain, yet still capable of capturing so well a smothered lack of independence. Beau is the person who never really grew up, still feeling attached like a child despite living alone.

Beau then proceeds to make pit stops that the film teases us into taking literally. Roger (Nathan Lane) and Grace (Amy Ryan), the suburban couple who take Beau in, are still mourning the loss of their son, who died as a soldier during a U.S. invasion of Venezuela. They mask their sorrow with overdone cheerfulness. Their teenage daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers), is not happy having a stranger sleep in her room. Who are these people? How did they find our hero? We’re not supposed to ask too much because it’s all about what they represent to marooned Beau. This family is a distorted idea of the kind of home Beau never had. Roger doesn’t seem to mind that Toni pops pills, and even warns her not to mix them with anything when she leaves to who knows where. Nearby in an RV lives Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), who fought next to the fallen son and lives deranged with PTSD. It’s as if these are all projections of a world Beau has always been detached from out of sheer fear. 

All of “Beau Is Afraid” functions like cinematic headspace. Deep, scarring insecurities color everything. To get a sense of the Freudian zone Aster is playing with, consider that Beau is still a virgin out of a sheer terror of intercourse. As a child, Mona would openly share about how Beau’s father died on their wedding night the moment he climaxed. Flashbacks then reveal a childhood crush on a cruise ship that haunts Beau like those endless what if’s in life. He comes across a sort of theater commune in the woods who perform a strange play that turns into an emotive fantasy about the family Beau never had. Aster evokes the same kind of reflective melancholy of Kaufman and shows like “BoJack Horseman,” where surreal imagery explores themes or emotions that would be utterly devastating as mere drama. Aster processes the more painful feelings through dark comedy, verging near slapstick in some scenes, daring us to laugh at moments of bombastic absurdity. The director of a horror film where someone carries out self-decapitation is also capable of somehow making suicide by paint cause a chuckle. Regular cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s compositions mix gothic fears with the haze of a dream.

For Joaquin Phoenix this is the latest entry in his collection of unsettled performances. Few actors have embodied trembling psyches like this one over the last few years. Something in Phoenix is wired to tap into the crumbling of the self. Go back to his perverse emperor in “Gladiator” through his Oscar-winning nihilist of “Joker.” He’s also capable of immense warmth. Both collide in “Beau Is Afraid.” We pity the scared recluse but want to see him accomplish something, whether it is finishing the journey or breaking free of his mental chains. Phoenix’s casting is beyond crucial. He has to be likable while bringing across humiliation and urgency. This entire film is about a person as opposed to the plot. Aster entraps his lead in scenes that seem plucked from disturbed daydreams or nightmares, like finding an intruder staring at you from your ceiling. The deeper terror is the feeling of never having real privacy even in your thoughts, because of the psychological straightjackets imposed by mom.

An instant challenge is how exactly to term “Beau Is Afraid.” Can one really call it enjoyable? It is certainly entertaining on a bold level. You either have to walk already tuned into this movie’s frequency or be open enough for it. After only two features, Aster decided to take the sort of swing others wouldn’t dare, making a film which verges on the unclassifiable. Much of it threatens to be grueling with its runtime of three hours. Aster has been so good with clearer narratives that despite the scope of “Beau Is Afraid,” we sense there are even better movies to come. This one exists to be pondered and debated, while still being admired for existing at all. Everyone is giving their all, from the cast to the eerie and quirky score by The Haxan Cloak. Ari Aster has essentially rendered himself naked before the audience. The result is creatively exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. 

Beau Is Afraid” releases April 21 in theaters nationwide.