The beautiful nightmare that is “Beau Is Afraid”

A sheer three hours worth of mommy issues

“Beau Is Afraid” is a surrealist dark comedy horror film from writer/director Ari Aster (“Hereditary” and “Midsommar”). The film follows an extremely anxious middle-aged man named Beau (Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”) as he embarks on a journey to his mother’s house.

The film’s ensemble cast also includes Patti LuPone, Zoe Lister-Jones, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kylie Rogers, Denis Ménochet and Parker Posey.
I love almost everything I’ve watched from Aster, and I can say that “Beau Is Afraid” is yet another home-run for him. While it is admittedly his worst film to date (mainly due to some pacing issues), it is also his most unique and ambitious.

A pivotal aspect of this film is Aster’s superb direction which has continued to develop over the years. I’ve always been fascinated by directors choosing to deviate from the genres they started off with (horror, in his case), so when he announced that he would be taking a break from the horror genre, I was pumped to see what he would do … and he really pulled it off with “Beau Is Afraid.” This movie is much larger in scale than any of Aster’s previous work, as can be seen by the visuals, lengthy runtime, ensemble cast and $35 million budget (which makes this film A24’s biggest-budget film to date). Part of this is aided by the musical score by Bobby Krlic, which conveys both a heavenly nature as well as a sense of tension for things to come (much like Krlic did in his score for “Midsommar”). Every unique set piece benefits from the detailed production design and gorgeous cinematography. There’s also a can’t-miss beautiful animated sequence in the second act.

Another big strength of this film is its tone, particularly in how it blends horror, drama, surrealism and comedy into this unholy beast. The premise is ridiculous on its own — Aster himself has likened the film to “a Jewish ‘Lord of the Rings’ but he’s just going to his mom’s house.” The film mixes the deadpan comedy of Wes Anderson, the overwhelming intensity of the Safdie brothers and the unsettling, dreamlike absurdity of David Lynch in a way that works surprisingly well. “Beau Is Afraid” has a lot of violent content throughout, and while we are asked to bask in the disturbing nature of it, we are also presented with Aster’s sick sense of humor and surreal vision.

A lot of these elements, however, would not have come across successfully if the actors had not sold the tone with their performances. Thankfully, the film’s ensemble cast understood the assignment and delivered some fantastic performances. Beau has a very strained relationship with his mother to the point that he seems like he hasn’t entirely matured, and I think Phoenix pulls it off. Beau’s first scene in the film takes place in his therapist’s office — we see him standing in the reception, holding himself with the posture of a child who doesn’t want to be there. As soon as I saw this, I was immediately sold by Phoenix’s performance.

It gets even better from there as Beau works his way through increasingly bizarre scenarios over the course of his epic journey. Another phenomenal performance in this film was from Patti LuPone, who plays the mother and was over-the-top in the best possible way. She’s an overbearing mother who emotionally abuses Beau, and LuPone plays the character like an R-rated evil stepmother, which is perfect for the surreal comedy that Aster has made.

As much as I loved “Beau Is Afraid,” I have to address the elephant in the room: the pacing. This is a movie that requires the audience to be zoned in for the entire runtime, but there were about 10 to 15 minutes that took me out of it. While this may sound like an insignificant amount of time, I believe that the pacing would be better if these scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

All in all, “Beau Is Afraid” is yet another great film from demented auteur Ari Aster. While it struggles a bit in pacing, the directing, performances, visuals, tone and style make this worth the price of admission … and if anything, I think that audiences need more movies as unabashedly weird as this.

RATING: 8/10