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"Beau Is Afraid" Stuck In One-Note Nightmare
This image released by A24 shows Nathan Lane, from left, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Ryan in a scene from "Beau is Afraid."

Beau may be afraid but Ari Aster certainly isn't.

Of the many words used to describe the writer-director's previous two films — "Hereditary" and "Midsommar" — timidity was never one of them. This is a filmmaker who has sent Toni Collette skittering across the ceiling and intricately arranged mutilated bodies the way some people make bouquets.

But if any doubts remained about just how far Aster is willing to go, "Beau Is Afraid" should pacify them. Not because of the degree of terror within it; by Aster's high standards, "Beau Is Afraid" is notably less ghastly than his first two outings. But it's even more audaciously grotesque, more self-evidently pulled from its director's psyche, more a work of a filmmaker's unfiltered, runaway imagination.

Rather than slotting in as a "horror" film, it can be categorized a little less neatly as a surreal three-hour Homeric odyssey about Jewish guilt, Oedipal angst and somebody named "Birthday Boy Stab Man." And this, remember, constitutes a sunnier register for Aster.

What has made Aster such a potent filmmaker, I think, is the lack of relief he offers audiences. His movies are nightmares without any possibility of waking. And just as much as one might spend "Midsommar" looking for an escapeway, the urge to open a window for just one breath of fresh air in "Beau Is Afraid" is considerable.

That's both a compliment and a complaint for Aster's film, a rigorously wearisome experience propelled by a monstrous current of anxiety and dread. Aster's cinema is that of a bad trip: a surreal and comic journey through dark corners of consciousness, vividly rendered in caricature and detail. ("Midsommar," if you remember, began with mind-altering mushrooms.) It's not an easy ride to recommend taking. But, just the same, there's never any doubt that you are, most definitely, traveling somewhere else.

"Beau Is Afraid," which A24 released in theaters nationwide, opens not with psychedelics but the pangs of child birth. After some muffled screams and flashes of light, we, as Beau, emerge directly out of the womb. His mother Mona (played at different times by Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti LuPone) screams because her baby is oddly silent. Flashing forward several decades, the grown but still whimpering Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) is sitting with his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson, a boon to any movie). It doesn't take long for his mother to come up in their session. "Do you ever wish she was dead?" the therapist asks. Beau, protesting a little too much, quickly shouts "No!"

Back near his New York apartment, the city streets are an over-the-top hellscape, draped in garbage and graffiti, with mean-looking faces everywhere, including that loose maniac, Birthday Boy Stab Man, along with roaming hordes of vandals. We're less in the real world than some bonkers, not-funhouse-mirrors manifestation of Beau's fears. His anxiety might be called cripplingly extreme if it didn't appear to be well-founded by the state of things around him.

Beau is to travel the next day to visit his mother. But after a neighbor harasses him through the night and his apartment keys and bag are stolen, Beau calls to tell his mother that he's missed his plane, news she coldly receives as confirmation that her son never loved her. Things are already antic and unhinged but they then turn cartoonishly apocalyptic. Beau's apartment is broken into and taken over, and his spiraling desperation is amplified into crushing remorse when he's called and told that his mother has been killed, her head severed by a fallen chandelier.

After Beau, by now completely crazed and stripped of nearly everything he owns, is struck by a truck, Aster's film proceeds as a nightmarish quest to reach his mother's house before the funeral service. Clearly defined sections make up the odyssey, each of which offer some disturbing alternative to family life, with a few flashbacks mixed in. First is a period of distressing convalescence with the seemingly stable suburban couple who ran him over (Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane); then a magical section in a forest where Beau encounters a traveling theater group and is transported into their stage play; and finally his late, bedraggled arrival home.

Much of all this is far more extended than it perhaps ought to be. But it's also crammed full with subtle gags in a meticulous and twisted tapestry of psychological torture. The way Beau keeps dropping through trap doors of narrative in a metaphorical movie realm will remind some of Charlie Kaufman or maybe a particularly grim version of "Alice in Wonderland." But "Beau Is Afraid' is eminently unique to Aster, who fills his frames with sly jokes. Beau's recent phone calls, for just one example, are only his mother, his therapist and Moviefone. Who needs anything else?

But whether there's enough here to sustain this nakedly ambitious three-hour roller coaster is harder to say. There are scenes, shot by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, that I don't expect to forget. The animated interlude in the forest, with the help of Chilean artists Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, is a magically dark fable within a fable. Nathan Lane, while otherwise entrapping Beau, peppering every line with "Old buddy" and "My dude" is one of the funnier things I've seen lately. And in the film's final chapter, Patti LuPone steps forward magnificently with such gothic menace that she makes Collette's mother of "Hereditary" look like a peach.

All of this, though, is a lot of movie to hang on mommy issues. "Beau Is Afraid" takes a long road — and one with a lot of yelling and sniveling along the way — to not get very far. That could, of course, be the point. But the simpering sad sack Beau — despite Phoenix's typically committed and sympathetic performance — remains curiously void, stuck in a one-note nightmare.

Aster, whose first film also dug into the frightful side of what we inherit, is clearly and intensely channeling something deep within. And as captivating as it can be to see a filmmaker out on the ledge like this this, the sense that characters are being moved around like pawns in an elaborate design — an aspect of Aster's previous films, too — never quite dissipates. The one exception: Parker Posey. She walks into the movie late, as a long-ago encounter of Beau's, and instantly changes the movie's chemistry. She's the one breath of fresh air in "Beau Is Afraid," but, boy, does Aster snuff it out quick.


"Beau Is Afraid," an A24 release is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for strong violent content, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language. Running time: 179 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.