Beau Is Afraid Review – A Carnival of Dreams, Nightmares, and Mothers

When Ari Aster was a boy, his mother took him to watch The Piano Teacher; a psychosexual drama with twists of sex, loneliness, cruelty, and an overbearing mother. He has since declared that this was one of his finest moviegoing experiences. That could be a joke, and maybe it should be, but two things are clear from it: He loves the psychologically strange, and that his films and his mother are deeply intertwined. And sure, the child-poisoning mother of his Munchausen short, and the witchy matriarchs of his debut, Hereditary, have said as much, but with Beau Is Afraid, Aster has been given A24’s biggest budget and runtime to date.

Like a David Lynch film, Beau is Afraid’s plot is unwieldy and difficult to summarise. Maybe “Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) traverses dreamscapes and nightmares to visit his mother (Patti LuPone)”, or “Stolen keys and a missed flight set a series of accidents and sycophants upon Beau”. But this says very little of the experience, which surprises and shocks (and entertains). So instead, take an example of one of the tamer scenes: Beau sits in his bathtub, filled with grief, staring into space and going red in the face – we lean in to see what he will do now that he has been pushed to his breaking point. Water droplets fall from above and look up to see a man clinging for dear life to Beau’s walls and roof. A deadly spider runs across the man’s face and he falls into the tub with Beau. They wrestle, Beau runs naked into the street, is accosted by a policeman, and hit by a car. After an interlude of dreams and memories, Beau wakes in a teen girl’s bedroom with two parents doting over him, and an ankle monitor on his leg; a new nightmare begins. 

This is all across an early five-to-ten minutes of the three-hour grand circus show (thankfully, there are moments to catch your breath). Aster’s memories, fears, dreams, nightmares and a wealth of abstractions are now celluloid. It’s as if a world of David Lynch’s dumpster witches, oddballs, and malicious presences were filtered through a fantastical lens like Wes Anderson’s. It’s an overdose of concentrated psyche, and somehow it’s pretty funny (in an absurd, sometimes uneasy kind of way) – while Beau is having his heart ripped out over the phone, a shell-shocked veteran army (Denis Ménochet) crawls around in the background to avoid taking his pills.

Joaquin Phoenix performs excellently, and often invisibly in the face of the film’s many psychotics. He’s like a pile of dirty laundry in a bustling laundromat. Bill Hader, Nathan Lane, Parker Posey, and Richard Kind also make characteristically entertaining appearances. Patti LuPone manages to wrestle Beau’s absurd and histrionic mother just below the line of complete unbelievability. 

Though there are the crumbs of a plot to follow, Beau is Afraid seems to aim to be unintelligible; The second you’ve got a toehold, you’re pushed in another direction. This will be thrilling for some, painful for others. It’s best for those who’ve enjoyed few plot twists or surprises recently, and there, Beau will consistently impress and confound. The closest comparison may be Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest – comprehensive and postmodern looks at the many twistings and misfires of their author’s brains – but nothing is so clear that you leave feeling anything other than “Woah, what a trip!”.

Director: Ari Aster

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan

Writers: Ari Aster

Branden Zavaleta

Branden Zavaleta is a Perth-based film critic. He loves movies that charm, surprise or share secrets. Some little known favourites of his are Ishii's The Taste of Tea, Barboni's They Call Me Trinity, and Kieslowski's Camera Buff.

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