Ari Aster is unrestrained. Beau is Afraid demonstrates to audiences that the Hereditary and Midsommar director previously held back the full scale of his surrealist inclinations. And that’s a tough pill to swallow. Aster’s third feature film amplifies the frenetic and horrific themes that defined his first two films. Beau Is Afraid emerges as a purposefully jumbled whirl wheel of paranoia, mommy issues, and hostility that haunt Beau Wassermann, the disquieted protagonist played by Joaquin Phoenix.
Beau is undeniably afraid. And Aster ensures we understand why. He is a mild-mannered loner, traversing a world where everyone fosters an incorrigible hostility. Around him, the world constantly unravels into unbridled chaos, but this relentless antagonism pales in comparison to Beau’s greatest fear: disappointing his mother, Mona Wassermann, who Patti LuPone plays with spine-chilling coldness. Once Beau misses his flight, we hear Mona’s voice for the first time, spilling an all-too-familiar guilt trip that propels Beau into an odyssey of cruel bewilderment. Beau’s anxious- hero’s journey to his mother’s house is indulgently defiled by Aster as he encounters disturbingly cartoonish dilemmas one after another. Trapped by a suburban family treating his wounds or mesmerized by a play performed by a troupe living in the forest, Beau finds that his anxieties are confirmed as even the nicest characters reveal an inner malevolence.
Aster honors the surrealist tradition, adopting storytelling techniques that rely on “irrational knowledge.” His film is packed with marvelous supporting performances, including Nathan Lane as a deceitful suburban dad and Parker Posey as Elaine Bray, Beau’s estranged childhood love. Unfortunately, Beau Is Afraid’s paranoiac surrealism mutates from its most enticing feature into its greatest shortcoming during its three-hour runtime. That said, it’s clear that Aster is experimenting with his artistic vision, and it’s likely to produce excellence another time. R, 179 min.