Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Ari Aster’s film career thus far could lovingly be called divisive and polarizing; for this viewer, both Hereditary and Midsommar are among the best horror films made in the last decade. With Beau is Afraid, Aster enters his dark dramedy era in a flourish of brashness and a crescendo of emotionality. Due to the structure and visuals heavily leaning into the metaphorical, Beau will doubtless cause brash responses amongst those who fail to engage with it, or take a literal meaning to some of the proceedings. For fans of Aster, worry not: Beau carries Aster’s macabre sensibilities and channels them through a deranged filter of hilarious, increasingly preposterous situations. Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, and Parker Posey steal the show.

On the eve of the anniversary of his father’s death, Beau (Phoenix) has been making preparations to visit his demanding mother (LuPone), buying a beautiful ceramic figure as a gift to win her over. Beau’s therapist writes him a script for a “cool new drug” Zypnotycil, and with a bag all packed, it would seem the stage is set for a sweet time away. Beau basically lives in an urban slum to end all slums—one could even call it New York City’s general vibe lately, amplified immeasurably. For anyone with intensive fear or anxiety over cityscapes, beware of this first act. Between Beau and Joker‘s Arthur Fleck, Phoenix has never been better as two very different middle-aged characters displaced by society.

Aster’s depiction of Beau’s run-down accommodations have him dodging crackheads just to get into his apartment. Everything is covered in a layer of grime or obscene graffiti. People are beaten in the streets, eyes are gouged from their sockets, and a circumsized white male dubbed the “Birthday Boy Stab Man” carves his killing spree across the neighborhood. Beau’s building has been crudely defaced, and a wonky elevator on the verge of collapse takes him up to his crummy apartment. A sign warning of a loose brown recluse spider displays ominously. Awful neighbors are leaving notes under Beau’s door to “please lower the volume” as gunshots and blasting music supercharge through the building; every time Beau goes into the hallways to confront them, no one is in sight.

This whole thing is played for dark-comedy laughs that continue rolling out at rapid-pace across the four chapters of Beau is Afraid. The horrors of leaving one’s home, especially post-Covid, are depicted with a nail-biting degree of ridiculousness, cranked to an 11 after not even Beau’s apartment can comfort. Just as Beau is about to leave for his mother’s, his bags and even keys are discarded by some janitor. Forced to cancel on his mother, Beau props open his door to leave the building for a moment. As an entire homeless encampment descends upon his building, Beau is forced to watch in horror as they invade. 

Things go from bad to worse when Beau calls his mother in a panic only to be greeted by a frazzled delivery man that claims she has had an ironically horrid accident. As a result of this phone call, the trajectory of the story heads into wildly unpredictable directions that had my sold out IMAX audience in hysterics. Beau needs to be present for the burial of his mother, no matter the cost. Car accidents, an old flame named Elaine (Parker Posey), childhood flashbacks, the greatest cinematic use of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” of all time, a giant attic-monster, an atrophied-orgasm corpse, a suspiciously friendly couple and their daughter, a community rehearsal of a strange play by The Orphans of the Forest, an epic Patti LuPone monologue, and enough metaphorical subtext to write an entire dissertation: Beau is Afraid has it all!

Tentatively titled Disappointment Blvd. before release (and still a more unique title than the one we actually got), Beau is Afraid is almost exactly three hours on the dot—Aster’s longest movie to date. It also feels the most personal. Bizarre imagery and hilariously inane situations make searing conclusions on aging, death, and grief genuinely palatable. As someone who has frequently dealt with less than desirable living situations and neighbors slipping notes under my door, the entire first act was relatable on a level I did not expect. Reduced down to its simplest parts, Beau is Afraid still manages to deliver unforgettable moments that even haters will have difficulty getting out of their minds. Aster has again crafted a singular vision that will probably be on many best/worst lists at year’s end. I need a few more watches to decide where it ultimately lands, but Hereditary and Midsommar are in good company!

Test the bonds of life and love when Beau is Afraid comes to theaters everywhere on Friday, April 21st.

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