Ari Aster is a prestige horror filmmaker who’s made some of A24’s most notable and profitable offerings in recent memory. Incidentally, A24 is the same studio that came out with Everything Everywhere All At Once, a hugely sprawling and heady magnum opus that turned into the year’s most celebrated and decorated cinematic sucker-punch.

So when Aster finally brought out the passion project he spent ten years trying to make, A24 was in the perfect position to get him everything he wanted. And that’s how we got the bloated three-hour self-indulgent bugfuck epic of Beau is Afraid.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau Wasserman, the only son of a wealthy single mother (Mona, alternately played by Zoe Lister-Jones and freaking Patti LuPone). More to the point, he’s a nebbish with general anxiety disorder to the point of all-consuming paranoia and a crippling fear of literally everything. He’s especially afraid of mass shootings, police, homeless people, drug addicts, traffic accidents, mass murderers like he sees on the news… you get the idea. I should add that Beau is perpetually alone and terminally afraid of being intimate with someone else, for reasons I won’t get into here.

Long story short, Beau gets word that his mother was apparently killed under bizarre circumstances. And per her express wishes, her funeral arrangements can’t proceed until Beau comes back to the family estate. Complications arise and bullshit ensues.

First of all, it bears mentioning that we’re watching an Ari Aster movie about a mentally unstable character who’s just gotten on new medications. Furthermore, this is a movie that takes all the overblown anxieties of modern life and amplifies them to a degree even more psychotic than the worst of social media clickbait could conceive. Such a film could potentially work as a potent allegory or satire, but the film flies so far off the rails so quickly that it’s hard to determine any coherent point. The best we get are some thin implications regarding how trauma and pressure can drive us insane. An interesting concept when applied to a societal level, but it’s far too watered-down by the sheer volume of bullshit spread across three hours.

The protagonist is another huge problem. It’s an old established rule that the protagonist of a story should ideally have some agency in directing or altering the course of the plot. Beau, however, has no agency whatsoever. He has absolutely no control over his own life. That’s the entire point. That helpless feeling plays well into the overall themes regarding modern anxiety, but it doesn’t make for a strong plot or a compelling protagonist.

Something else that makes a good protagonist is a strong motivation. Beau wants to get home to bury his mother, that’s all well and good. But so much of the movie and so many of Beau’s fears are motivated by his all-consuming desire not to die. I honestly don’t mean to condone or encourage suicide — even in the case of a fictional character — but there comes a point when I have to wonder what Beau wants to live for so badly. The filmmakers have crafted a setting of such unspeakably hellish chaos, I have to wonder why ANYONE would want to keep on living in it for another few decades. What happens if Beau survives all this? What happens if he dies? Hell if I know.

Speaking of which, it bears repeating that Beau is slavishly devoted to his wealthy mother, who’s shown to live in an opulent mansion with a vast fortune and an army of employed staff. Yet Beau is living in a ramshackle apartment where the electronics are prone to failure, the water is randomly shut off, there’s an infestation of fucking brown recluse spiders, the landlord is impossible to reach, the neighbors are assholes, and the entire neighborhood is such a crime-infested hellhole that Beau is in serious mortal danger of getting assaulted and/or robbed and/or killed just for stepping outside. Oh, and there’s no sign that Beau has any kind of job or stable income.

If you’ve seen the movie, please leave a comment and let me know why Beau — the paranoid nervous wreck afraid of the whole goddamn world — chose to live on his own in this particular apartment when he could’ve been living with his mom this whole time. I didn’t find one, and I was waiting for some explanation through the whole movie. Because if Beau had done the sensible thing and lived with his mother like he had every reason to, none of this would’ve happened.

To be sure, the issues with character development go far deeper than the protagonist. The cast is loaded with such talents as Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Parker Posey, Richard Kind, Michael Gandolfini, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and so many others who all turn in remarkable work. Trouble is, they’re all playing to the cheap seats as grotesque nightmarish parodies of human beings. Nobody acts in a rational manner and everybody acts in a wildly heightened way. All of this on top of the aforementioned unreliable mental state of our narrator.

The bottom line is that there’s no baseline for reality here. It’s impossible to tell what’s really happening, what’s worth taking seriously, or what point the film is trying to make.

Beau is Afraid is a cruel, violent, nonsensical film about the cruel, violent, nonsensical modern world. That’s a pretentious gambit to try and pull off, and I’m not convinced Aster stuck the landing. The runtime alone is a potential deal-breaker — sitting through such a defiantly avant garde picture deliberately void of sense for three hours straight is a huge ask.

I can appreciate a film that has a subversive edge to it, made with such care and talent that it feels like the filmmakers somehow got away with something. But in this case, it feels like a hugely elaborate joke on the audience. I could maybe recommend a home video viewing for the curious, but no way would I recommend paying a full ticket price to sit through this for three hours straight.

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