Beau is Afraid review: Ari Aster sends Joaquin Phoenix on a brilliant, bonkers odyssey of mental trauma

Now showing; Cert 16

Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional in Beau is Afraid. Photo: Takashi Seida© Takashi Seida

Beau is Afraid is a bizarre roller coaster. Photo: Takashi Seida© Takashi Seida

Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Beau is Afraid’. Photo: A24 Films

Hilary White

No matter how bad your life gets, it’ll never be as bad as a character in an Ari Aster film.

Between Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), the young upstart of horror has set fire to the world around his protagonists and watched how they cope. Loved ones are possessed, heads are lopped off, and things getting worse doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get better.

Those films were terrifying. Not cheap, jump-fright, loud-noise terrifying. Not gory, per se. Aster’s brand is something more clear-eyed and shocking, more startling in how it reaches into you.

Truth be told, we’re still getting over Hereditary, a possession horror starring Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne. Set in the wholesome bosom of a suburban family, Aster’s feature debut cut close to the bone by virtue of how well its family dynamics were portrayed.

Folk horror Midsommar, meanwhile, achieved a kind of psychotropic dread by trapping a young couple (Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor) in a flowery Nordic commune and channelling their relationship struggles through the rites of a pagan cult.

While starkly different in hue, both of these unforgettable films launched their mayhem in unlikely settings (assuming you don’t find family sitting rooms and pastoral meadows frightening).

This and a thin but unmistakable thread of depraved humour are what has made Aster stand out in the at-times oppressively formulaic field of horror cinema.

News that Aster was set to adjust the horror-to-comedy ratio in his third outing were not hugely surprising.

On the face of it, Beau is Afraid represents a further lightening since his debut’s bludgeoning frights.

And yet, its saga of a grown man with major mummy issues negotiating a broken world is another example of Aster putting his hero through the wringer. Beau should indeed be very afraid.​

Beau is Afraid is a bizarre roller coaster. Photo: Takashi Seida© Takashi Seida

Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional as the titular bundle of whimpers and mumbles. Beset with neuroses, Beau is prescribed a new medication by his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), along with strict instructions the pills must be taken with water.

This Gremlins-esque clause is the first of many fear-inducing stimuli in Beau’s life. The city street beneath his apartment is a gauntlet of brawls, bodies, drug addiction and gunfire.

We’re never quite sure if this is just how the world appears through Beau’s paralytic anxiety, or if his jitters are merely a logical response to the end-of-days madness of the America he walks through.

When he learns his mother (Patti LuPone) has been killed by a fallen chandelier, Beau sets about travelling home for the funeral. A bizarre sequence of events conspires to make him miss his flight. He’s then knocked down by a vehicle, only to wake up in the home of a saccharine couple (Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane) tending to his every need.

Their kindness, however, is cancelled out by their hostile teen daughter (Kylie Rogers) and a traumatised veteran (Denis Ménochet) they are caring for.

Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Beau is Afraid’. Photo: A24 Films

Extracting himself from this situation and continuing on to the funeral won’t be easy. Nothing is for Beau. The odyssey of pain just changes location.

Variously, he will encounter a forest-dwelling acting troupe, endure flashbacks to his adolescence and first tingles of love, and face off against his biggest fear – his relationship with his mother.

It takes a very special film to merit three hours of your time, especially if it is neither plot-driven, nor wholly relatable to the context of this filmmaker’s previous hits. Aster, by his own admission, has gone to a place more personal and exploratory with his third film; a place of dark, absurdist comedy (some scenes smack of Beckett) and the working through of childhood traumas.

Its picaresque nightmare moves through chapters, sometimes with spectacular changes in texture and tone. Parts are so cartoonish and surrealist that you could be watching a macabre Wes Anderson.

Yes, but is it funny? Aster’s aim to make “a Jewish Lord of the Rings” is telling, in this respect. There is indeed some of the “why me” humour of, say, Larry David, but the temperature is much cooler. Beau’s suffering is so over the top and unrelenting that it flabbergasts you into laughing.

Brilliant, perplexing, exhausting, indulgent, visionary. And yet Beau is Afraidwill be hard work for some, particularly those who like neat and tidy endings.

Four stars

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