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‘Beau Is Afraid’ Review: Joaquin Phoenix Struggles With Mom Issues In Ari Aster’s Bonkers Freudian Freakout


Playing Beau Wassermann, the character who gave his name to Ari Aster’s third feature film, Joaquin Phoenix throws balls against the wall in a performance of astonishing intensity that nothing holds back. Beau lives next door to a peep show empire called Ejectus Erectus, and at one point he is informed by a medic that his abnormally swollen testicles are cause for concern, which is just one of many clues that this man needs urgent – how to say delicate ? – oh heck, shoot a load.

Three hours that certainly brought the strange to the odyssey, Beau is scared they could be said to suffer from the same bloat, wandering through bizarre detours of varying effectiveness before arriving at a delightfully overripe operatic climax, elevated by Patti LuPone as the Lydia Tár of single mothers. But even if the pace is uneven, this is a movie with undeniably impressive wide swings.

Beau is scared

It comes down to

Mom dear.

Date of publication: Friday, April 14
Form: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Kylie Rogers, Denis Menochet, Parker Posey, Zoe Lister-Jones, Armen Nahapetian, Julia Antonelli, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Richard Kind, Hayley Squires
Director-screenwriter: Ari Aster

Rated R, 2 hours 59 minutes

From a piece with the devilishly imaginative double header that pushed Aster onto the map, Heir apparent And midsommar, but also a major departure into more adventurous territory, the new film trades the visceral impact of unnerving horror for maniacal dark comedy in an often intoxicating swirl of Oedipal dread, paranoia and confusion. It’s the kind of batshit-crazy family affair that only a director with established authoring credentials can pull off, which explains why Aster took it on now, even though the original script predated his earlier feature films.

It begins with Scorsese’s tribute to Martin After hours before switching to Charlie Kaufman mode with a liberal splash or two of Cronenbergian grotesquerie.

But even with a giant monster subtly suggested early on by one of the advertised rides at Ejectus Erectus, Beau is scared takes up more headroom than its gut-wrenching predecessors in the already formidable Aster canon. It’s fueled more by fear than terrifying dread, which may dampen its appeal to hardcore horror consumers. But as a journey into outrageous excess that’s totally on brand for A24, it should be seen.

The haunted mother-son dynamic that drives the picaresque plot is established right up front, opening into darkness with the sound of a heartbeat, intermittent bursts of light, and the cries of a woman fearing the worst for her freshly delivered baby, until a blow to the bum reveals a healthy, roaring boy. It sets the tone of the film with eccentric humor and uses a simulated womb camera much more playfully than Andrew Dominik’s. Blond.

Cut back to 40 years later and Phoenix’s Beau – pot-bellied, balding and so caught up in misery he often seems on the verge of catatonic – goes to see his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson). The confused look on Beau’s face when a missed call and voicemail from Mom show up on his phone leaves no doubt as to the main topic of their sessions. But when his psychiatrist asks how he feels about visiting his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death, Beau mostly mumbles incoherently. That will at least provide him with new medicines.

In one of the most virtuoso segments, filmed by Aster’s regular DP Pawel Pogorzelski as a dizzying sequence through streets brimming with chaos and violence, Beau makes his way back to his grungy apartment building in an unnamed town. Gun stalls line up next to tchotchke stands and food trucks; the locals dance, scream, and fight, while news reports warn of a psychotic drifter roaming the streets naked, stabbing random strangers.

Things are no less peaceful in Beau’s apartment, where a sign on the door informs tenants of an infestation of brown recluse spiders. Increasingly hostile notes are slid under his door from an irate neighbor who demands that he turn down his music, even though it’s coming from another apartment. But that friction might explain why his keys and luggage are stolen on his doorstep as he gets ready to leave for the airport.

The awkward phone conversation when Beau calls his mother, Mona, to tell her about the hitch is just a taste of the tense relationship between them (also visible in flashbacks, with the younger Mona played by Zoe Lister-Jones and the 13-year-old Beau of Armen Nahapetian). LuPone’s flat responses are interrupted by deafening silences, making it clear that Mona believes Beau is just making an excuse not to visit.

The film chronicles this broken man’s dogged determination – whose adult life seems to have been one long trembling retreat – to prove his mother wrong. He battles external forces as well as those within his confused mind, which in Kaufman-esque fashion could all be part of the same thing.

One of the wildest obstacles occurs on the first night, when he is locked out of his apartment and watches from a horrified distance as a rowdy mob occupies and destroys the place. Even when he reclaims his property and tries to de-stress in a warm bath, the danger remains, forcing him to hit the streets again and have a life-threatening accident.

From the infernal city, the film shifts to a seemingly quiet suburb, where Beau gets a brief taste of what life in a loving family can feel like as he is cared for by surgeon Roger (Nathan Lane) and his compassionate wife Grace (Amy Ryan). He becomes a surrogate son to the couple, whose own son was killed in action and whose teenage daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers) is a volatile pill-head. Roger agrees to take Beau to his mother’s house, but that promise, like Beau’s refuge, is short-lived, in no small part due to a PTSD-ravaged war veteran, Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), who finds himself in a trailer lives in the couple’s yard.

The setting shifts again and becomes even trippier when Beau flees through the woods and encounters a hippie-dippy woodland theater troupe rehearsing a play. He is invited to join them in the performance, which produces the film’s most mesmerizing sequence. Finding himself lost in the onstage action, Beau wanders through an alternate reality, a family life of joy and heartbreak that could have been his, rendered in beautifully dreamlike animation by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, the inventive Chilean craftsmen behind The Wolf House.

Raw reality – or unreality? – breaks the spell again, but Beau somehow escapes new threats against his life and lands back at his mother’s palatial home in the town that bears the name of the titan of industry, Wasserton.

In a film brimming with meticulous design details, all of which are there for a reason, the house is an architectural marvel no less striking than Aster’s sets for Heir apparent, the walls a shrine to Mona’s love for her only son. Beau’s desire to believe in that love is amusingly underscored by Bread’s 1972 soft rock clog “Everything I Own.”

But motherly love is much more complicated than any bland pop song. The line between sacrifice and suffocation is thin, as is the line between childish devotion and festering guilt. The less you know about this thrillingly wacky final stretch the better, furthermore it contains bizarre revelations, foreshadowed throughout, about Beau’s father. Oh, and also one of the most gonzo sex scenes in recent memory, set to Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.”

The section also features fantastic performances, fearlessly in line with Aster’s nightmarish vision – by Parker Posey as an associate of Mona’s, who is also the childhood sweetheart of Beau’s failed cruise ship romance; Richard Kind as Mona’s lawyer, who goes from thunderous disapproval to damning judgment; and especially LuPone in all her magnificent, scenery-munching glory.

With a mouth made for mockery and a voice made for scorn, Mona sets Beau straight on the harsh terms of her very conditional love and the ways he’s failed her by rejecting those terms. It is a representation of Jewish maternal monstrosity through the ages.

The film is ingeniously cast, with each performance finding its own idiosyncratic groove while cohesive to fit into the same unhinged universe of a mind in deep distress. That notably includes the witty work of Lane, Ryan and Henderson, as Nahapetian captures the disabling anxiety of a child well on his way to adulthood, and Lister-Jones is hilarious as the controlling mother, eerily injecting sexual undertones. lines like, “I’m proud of the man you are.”

But it’s Phoenix who holds you, even during the movie’s sometimes challenging longues, in a performance as completely, insanely committed as he’s ever given. If the character elicits more pity than emotional investment, it has more to do with the detachment effect of Aster’s surrealist approach than anything lacking in Phoenix’s raw, gaping wound of a characterization. If you have mom issues, watching Beau’s Homeric humiliation will trigger them.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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