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Open this photo in gallery:
BEAU IS AFRAID (2022). Joaquin Phoenix. Courtesy of A24

Joaquin Phoenix stars in director Ari Aster's Beau Is Afraid.Photo Credit: Takashi Seida/Courtesy of A24

  • Beau Is Afraid
  • Classification: 18A; 179 minutes
  • Written and directed by Ari Aster
  • Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Nathan Lane and Patti LuPone
  • Opens in theatres April 21

Critic’s Pick

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment audiences might first walk out en masse from the new three-hour surrealist horror-comedy Beau Is Afraid.

Will it be when star Joaquin Phoenix, playing a man stunted on every level (emotionally, professionally, sexually), is attacked in the bathtub by both a half-naked homeless man and a brown recluse spider? Perhaps the scene in which Phoenix’s title character is tracked into the woods by a PTSD-stricken war veteran who proceeds to turn innocent bystanders into chunks of meat? If not by that point, then it has to be during an all-timer of a Freudian-spiked sex scene that features swollen testicles, Mariah Carey’s Always Be My Baby and a severe case of rigor mortis.

All the scenes above are, in fact, rather staid compared to many of the eye-popping, brain-short-circuiting images that appear in writer-director Ari Aster’s epic therapy session of a movie. But describing those more outre elements feels too close to spoiling the rotted corners of Aster’s brain. (Okay, I have to make special mention of the giant penis monster that lives in the attic of Beau’s childhood home. It is a metaphorical creature that feels imported straight from a Z-grade Troma movie, albeit one directed by Jonah Hill’s character from Superbad.)

Anyway, to all those moviegoers who at any one point flee Beau Is Afraid – largely innocent souls intrigued by the reputation of Aster’s first two films, Hereditary and Midsommar, both of which feel like Disneyland rides in comparison – god bless, and enjoy the rest of your evenings. Because I will still be sitting there in the theatre, back row centre, soaking up all the demented psychological sludge that Aster is eager to serve up in heaping, overflowing spoonfuls.

Beau Is Afraid is not a movie for everyone – actually, it is a movie for very, very, very few. But I just happen to be part of that teeny-tiny target audience. And for me, Beau Is Afraid kills.

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A waking nightmare impressive in its bid to disappoint, Aster’s third film is one of the more blistering and raw movies to ever land a major star, a relatively sky-high budget (the indie-cool kids at A24 were somehow convinced to cut Aster a $35-million cheque) and an epic run-time that tests more organs than the bladder. It is also, more often than not, deeply and acidly funny, in the kind of perverse way that recontextualizes the term “cult movie.”

If you can imagine the decades-spanning ambition of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, with the sour grit of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver – and sprinkled with the theatre-kid fairy dust of an off-off-way-off-Broadway production of Into the Woods – then you are very close to the look, feel and highly acquired taste of Beau Is Afraid.

Aster’s film has a deceptively simple story – a man needs to get home for his mother’s funeral – that is stretched and flattened, inflated and torqued, into an epic Jewish-American odyssey of guilt and pain, humour and horror. Episodic in structure, the movie opens with the fortysomething Beau in therapy, mumbling about his apprehensions over an upcoming visit to see his mother. But the morning that Beau is scheduled to fly, his apartment – located in a hellish alterna-world that imagines Travis Bickle’s stomping grounds refashioned as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside meets San Fran’s Tenderloin district – is invaded by vagrants, including a naked serial killer that a TV news anchor cheerily refers to as “Birthday Boy Stab Man.”

After Beau manages to survive that chaos, he wakes to hear that his mother – who delivered an epic guilt trip on him earlier for missing his flight – has been killed in an accident. (The “bad” news is delivered by a famous comedic actor, face half-hidden, in one of the film’s many brilliant bits of idiosyncratic casting.)

Neurotic and paranoid – though, as the film underlines over and over again, completely within reason – Beau stumbles from one horror to another. He escapes his neighbourhood only to find himself in the blinding-bright faux-comfort of suburbia, where a sickeningly cheery couple played by Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan insist on healing him back to health. A hop, skip and one ingested bucket of toxic blue paint later, Beau finds his misadventures quickly multiplying: There is a half-hour animated sequence that ages Beau by decades, a number of icy flashbacks that trace Beau’s relationship with his mother and an appearance by Parker Posey that is destined to traumatize an entire generation of Gen-Xers.

Open this photo in gallery:
BEAU IS AFRAID (2022). Nathan Lane, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Ryan. Courtesy of A24

Nathan Lane, left, and Amy Ryan, right, play a sickeningly cheery couple who insist on healing Beau back to health.Photo Credit: Takashi Seida/Courtesy of A24

It all leads to an epic, stadium-sized showdown between Beau and his mom (played by Patti LuPone in the “present” and Zoe Lister-Jones in the past), which makes this picture the very worst Mother’s Day movie since either movies or mothers were invented.

If you are still reading, then you have likely made the calculated bet with yourself that the distinct pleasures of Aster’s film are worth its substantial pains. Which they undoubtedly are. Its visual imagination is wonderfully unrestrained, compelling in its extremes even when it is so clearly indebted to every movie that Aster hoovered up to get here. Its tone is impressively steadfast in its desire to repel one moment, entrance the next. And its performances are across-the-board astounding in their commitment.

Phoenix is asked to carry an entire universe’s worth of pain and pent-up psychosis as Beau, and completely transforms himself into the world’s unhappiest man. LuPone, meanwhile, gets to go full-on horror show as a parent who had a child for all the wrong reasons – her late-film monologue succeeds because the actress is possessed by a terrifyingly confident sense of glee.

And while Lane, Ryan, Posey and Richard Kind (the undisputed king of the kind of nasally haranguers that Aster seems to have grown up around) play barely-human cartoons, each performer finds a place in Aster’s muddy world and digs in for the long haul. (A special spotlight also needs to be reserved for whoever in the film’s casting department found Armen Nahapetian, the young actor playing the teenage Beau, who bears such a striking resemblance to Phoenix that you’d swear the kid was a deepfake act of CGI trickery.)

Capped off with a “what??” ending that Aster designed explicitly to infuriate, Beau Is Afraid is a gutsy, bold, vulgar swing of a movie – the kind of go-for-broke reputation-gamble that you can make only once in your career. (That it comes out only a few months after Damian Chazelle’s Babylon is just a neat bit of cosmic timing.) But if Aster ends up losing his livelihood because of it, at least he went down screaming.

Open this photo in gallery:
BEAU IS AFRAID (2022). Joaquin Phoenix. Courtesy of A24

Capped off with an ending that Aster designed explicitly to infuriate, Beau Is Afraid is a gutsy, bold, vulgar swing of a movie – the kind of go-for-broke reputation-gamble that you can make only once in your career.Photo Credit: Takashi Seida/Courtesy of A24

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