Beau would appear to have every reason to be afraid.
When we first encounter Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), he’s living in a run-down flat in the heart of an American city that appears to have been set-dressed by Hieronymus Bosch. There are rotting bodies lying in the street, vicious fights are breaking out on every corner and he can’t even visit the convenience store without being pursued by a naked man who wants to stab him. His ever-smiling therapist (Stephen McKinley) tells him that it’s all the result of anxiety and makes sure he’s topped up with as many unpronounceable drugs as he can swallow – but he must be sure to take them with WATER!
A long-planned and somewhat overdue visit to his domineering mother, Mona (Patti Lupon), is the catalyst for a paranoiac sequence of unforeseen events, that put Beau into the hands of seemingly friendly couple, Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane). But once ensconced in their home in the country, he soon realises that everything there is not as cosy as it seems. Why does the couple’s teenage daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers), appear to hate him? And what’s the story with Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), the deranged army veteran who lives in a caravan in the garden? Why does he look at Beau in that sullen, threatening manner? The entire film plays like an endlessly protracted nightmare from which its lead character cannot awaken and though Beau still strives to make that all-important visit to his Mom, everything he does is destined to go horribly, catastrophically wrong…
Ari Aster is an interesting director, who excels at amping up an audience’s anxiety levels and, in the process, creating genuinely terrifying scenarios – but I felt his two previous features, Hereditary and Midsommar, both careered out of control in their final stretches and Beau Is Afraid suffers from the same complaint. While there are many memorable scenes here and a degree of invention that puts Aster amongst the forefront of contemporary filmmakers (check out the lengthy sequence where Beau wanders through a series of gorgeous animated landscapes), there’s still the conviction that he’s not quite as in control of his own storytelling as he needs to be.
With a bladder-straining running time of nearly three hours, the film’s conclusion feels needlessly protracted and there are some sections here – particularly a lengthy oedipal confrontation with his mother – that could probably have been edited out to make a tighter, more coherent movie.
Make no mistake, this is still a recommendation, because much of what’s on display here is absolutely dazzling. But you really can have too much of a good thing.