There was a point during Beau is Afraid (★★☆☆☆), Ari Aster’s ambitious third feature film, in which I weighed how unprofessional it would be to walk out of a three-hour screening early, convinced as I was by that juncture that I was not enjoying myself and would likely not enjoy myself for the duration of the movie.
It was about 20 minutes in.
If you like vivid nightmares driven by existential depression and crushing grief — which, is to say, if you’re looking for a movie that acts as a mirror for the encroaching suffocation of American life in 2023 — you will love Beau is Afraid.
Unlike most horror films that seek to provoke a feeling of escapism from the drudgery of daily life, Aster has drilled deep into the fragile psyche of a nation reeling from two decades of outsized culture war trauma and buttered up those sensitive neuroses with cayenne pepper.
That may sound appealing to some viewers. I personally don’t understand watching a movie to be further reminded why everything is on fire with possibly no hope of recovery or redemption. Is this the artistic rendering of ironic detachment? Is this a love letter to nihilism? Maybe! And perhaps that is a welcome venture to folks whose idea of a good time is sinking their teeth into a flick that could reasonably be described as weapons-grade cynicism.
It is not mine. I would describe the experience as undergoing a root canal without the benefit of nitrous oxide, which is ironic given that the film is a long, self-indulgent hallucination from a writer-director who appears to have given up on humanity. Every scene, packed with lamenting dialogue set against a feast of fratboy sight gags, seems to say, This all really sucks, don’t you think?
This is not to say Beau is Afraid isn’t lovingly made. Aster has clearly put enormous effort into the design. For someone so pessimistic about whether humanity can make an effort to stave off societal collapse, he has thrown himself into the presentation of his thesis. It is somewhat gorgeous in parts (if mostly lost in the ugly) and somewhat considered (if mostly lost in the ill-judged), but mostly, it’s just terribly depressing.
Jaoquin Phoenix, who turns in a great performance (for whatever that’s worth in the context of hating this film), plays Beau Wasserman, the middle-aged son of a highly successful businesswoman. She has suddenly died after being decapitated by a fallen chandelier.
In Beau’s world, nothing seems to go right. He lives in a crime-riddled city that would make GOP propagandists blush with its shamelessness in depiction. It’s unclear if he has a job, something the viewer doesn’t have time to consider with the true-to-life anxieties constantly foisted upon them: a neighbor’s loud music playing through the walls, apartment keys stolen out of the door after a few moments turned away, waking up late for a flight that leaves in an hour, etc.
That flight was to visit his mother for his parents’ anniversary, decades after his father died after orgasm during the intercourse that conceived him, a supposedly hereditary condition that has made Beau afraid to sleep with anyone and drawn him closer into the creepy grip of his mother, who told him all the men in his family die after their first (and only) orgasm. Beau is a virgin, of course.
But then the call from home comes while Beau is searching for his apartment keys and scrambling to get ready for his flight: his mother has been killed, and he must travel as soon as possible to her funeral while the rest of her family and friends sit shiva.
If anything here sounds remotely entertaining, it’s because I’ve held back in my criticism out of respect for the sterling cast who do their damndest to make this all work. In addition to Phoenix, Patti Lupone plays Mona Wasserman, Beau’s creepy mother, and Parker Posey plays Elaine Bray, his kinda-sorta love interest that drives the creepiest sex scene I’ve witnessed in recent memory.
Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane offer a welcome respite from the first act, but even their charm isn’t enough to save this flick. Richard Kind is a fun addition, but his typical loveliness is considerably muted here in service to the “everything is awful and always will be” vibes.
There are moments of brilliance that glitter like chips of gold in the festering tank of shit of a porta-potty. Aster’s meditation on the loss of parents hints at a much better — and perhaps scarier — movie that could be made. The occasional stab at humor lands well but is immediately washed out by the unrelenting bleakness. How often do you genuinely laugh during your nightmares? Therein partly lies the problem.
Ari Aster has considerable filmmaking gifts. Why he uses them in service to a vision of reminding us all that the world is hopeless is beyond me.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!