Beau Is Afraid offers a disturbing ride through anxiety and paranoia

Writer-director Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) takes viewers on an epic adventure with Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), an anxious milquetoast man forced to confront his deepest fears following the death of his mother and take a surrealist journey home. (179 min.)

click to enlarge Beau Is Afraid offers a disturbing ride through anxiety and paranoia
Courtesy photo by A24
TREPIDATIOUS TRAVEL Joaquin Phoenix stars as anxiety-ridden Beau Wassermann, whose mother dies, forcing him to return home and confront his deepest fears, in Beau Is Afraid, screening in local theaters.

Glen: If you’re a mentally well-adjusted person and don’t know what it’s like to suffer from crippling anxiety and paranoia, and you’d like to know, step right up to Aster’s latest nightmare, Beau Is Afraid. It’s three hours of sheer madness—deeply, uncomfortably, stunningly weird, and thoroughly confounding. Beau lives in a rundown apartment in a nightmarish neighborhood where corpses rot in the street and a naked man stabs random passersby. He only reluctantly leaves to see a therapist (played with sinister cheerfulness by Stephen McKinley Henderson) who’s happy to prescribe him new medications to take the edge off, but there’s no taking the edge off Beau. In fact, he’s all edge. He’s supposed to be visiting his mother, a powerful businesswoman with whom he has a complicated and guilt-ridden relationship, but after he oversleeps and has his apartment keys stolen because he left the keys in his door to return for dental floss, he misses his flight and suddenly begins circling the drain of his wretched life. Hopefully I’m not making it seem too fun. I’m glad I saw it, but this movie is challenging!

Anna: It was clear from the start we were living in Beau’s reality. The streets are riddled with danger, the accidental swallowing of mouthwash is sure to mean that stomach cancer is not far behind, and nothing he does can or will ever please his mother. It feels like a dangerous mind we’re living inside. Aster’s films are all a bit bonkers, and Beau is Afraid doesn’t break his tradition. I’ll see anything that Phoenix spends his time on, and I honestly love Aster’s weird, mind-bending storytelling. I found both Hereditary and Midsommer absolutely mesmerizing and entirely painful. Aster’s films present an experience, one you’re destined to have—an agreement you make once you settle into your seat. The dude has something about separating bodies from heads that he may need to explore. Just saying! I felt a bit shell-shocked after the film was over, disjointed and disturbed. I can say that days later I’m still pondering the gravity of it all, so I think Aster got exactly what he wanted from me as an audience member—a completely unsettled feeling of wonder.

Glen: I’ve got to hand it to Phoenix—he’s all in with this performance. His Beau is a man-child whose development is as arrested as they come. His mother, Mona, played with sadistic glee by Patti LuPone, piles the guilt onto her kowtowing son with the finesse of a lifelong martyr. She’s given and given until she can’t give anymore. Hence, Beau’s tortured mind perpetually wrestles with an intractable Oedipus complex coupled with a deep fear of intimacy. He believes if he orgasms, he’ll die. There’s this and so much more going on. When I left the theater, I thought, “I’ll never put myself through that again,” but now as I’m continuing to unpack it all, I’ll probably have to watch it again to see what I missed. Color me gobsmacked.

Anna: There’s definitely a lot going on here, and the lines between reality and Beau’s mental spiraling are tricky to untangle. After an accident, Beau is taken to the home of Roger (Nathan Lane), Grace (Amy Ryan), and their teenage daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers), and the world soon becomes claustrophobic. Is he trapped there? What is the motivation these people have to keep him around? It all feels so confusing, and as soon as you settle into acceptance with one part of the story, we move on to the next even more bizarre chapter. I’m with you; this one hasn’t quite sunk in yet. The more I think about this film, the wilder it gets.

New Times Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Sun Screen. Glen compiles listings. Comment at [email protected].

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