Considering everything there is to unpack in Beau is Afraid, the latest opus from writer-director Ari Aster, its central conflict is the film’s least interesting component. This is unfortunate because as long and unruly as it is—and feels—there are indeed visuals, ideas, performances, and more worth exploring—and even enjoying. Except then it all reduces down to the most tired of themes: mommy issues.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau, a frumpy middle-aged man living in what appears to be hell on earth, in part of his own making. His task, his one seemingly easy task, is to visit his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death. As we quickly—and often violently—learn, however, nothing is easy for poor Beau, as he’s flung into a picaresque of terror and anxiety for the next three hours. As per Aster’s approach, it’s best to think of his film in thirds: an impressive, pressurized opening during which Beau must escape his humble abode; an off-kilter suburban nightmare slash fairytale featuring Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane (both great casting choices); and then a brutal final third that stretches inconceivably into what feels like a fourth segment. At its best, we can marvel at Phoenix’s total commitment to personifying this sad man-child on his journey of self-discovery. It’s also easy to applaud some of Aster’s inventive filmmaking choices, including a fantastical half-animated/half-stage-crafted sequence that expands the film’s scope beyond all reason. And, sure, it’s darkly funny at times too. There’s no shame in appreciating that, even as the film’s life-and-death stakes ratchet ever higher.
It’s in the payoff of those stakes that Beau is Afraid falters. Setting aside Patti LuPone’s solid performance, the role Beau’s mother has in the film is ultimately what one would expect. So while it’s apparent Aster is working through something—and taking great artistic risks to do so!—his film’s emotional reach just doesn’t match its expansive cinematic grasp. Like Beau, we come to learn everything and end up knowing nothing.