BEAU IS AFRAID. I've long harbored pet theory (borne of petty resentment) about only sons of single mothers. Having observed them at varying distances for the better part of a life, albeit with inescapable preconceptions, I would say this theory is something more than anecdotal; it is still very much the product of an addled mind. I'll not elaborate on my completely unacademic thesis here, well-researched though it may be. I only bring it up as counterpoint to the voluminously explored counterpoint writer-director Ari Aster (Hereditary, 2018; Midsommar, 2019) seems to have been working on and has presented to us in the form of a quasi-comic, horror-tinged, three-hour Oedipus riff called Beau is Afraid.
Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) is certainly afraid, and rightly so. In a post-positivity nightmare world queasily similar to our own, corpses litter the streets of Beau's neighborhood. Returning from visits to his psychiatrist, Beau is compelled to sprint to his front door under the very real threat of attack. A naked serial killer is the top story in the news, stabbing dozens of victims in broad daylight. The water in Beau's building may or may not be on at a given time; signs posted in the hallways warn of a brown recluse spider on the loose; Beau's neighbor seems to be hallucinating that Beau is playing loud music and keeping him up at night.
More to the point, though, Beau is afraid of his mother.
She, Mona Wasserman (Patti Lupone), as we will gradually learn, stands atop an empire of commercial brands bearing her initials. Her companies manufacture everything, it would seem. As a boy, Beau was her literal poster child. Now, though, in advancing middle age, doughy, balding, alone and increasingly battered, Mona sees him as a source of great disappointment.
The inciting incident here, wherein Beau sleeps perilously late before a flight to visit Mona, after which his keys and bag are stolen literally from his doorstep, culminates in a phone call to Mother. Attempting to understand what has occurred and what to do, he entreats an increasingly cold Mona to offer advice or support, anything maternal, really. The ice water bath of disapproval and guilt induced by her few, carefully chosen words of disappointment can only be created by a parent, it's true, but that's not what anybody's looking for; especially Beau. And things are only going to get worse.
Through the first act, Aster continues to plague Beau with discomforts and horrors both immediately recognizable and almost beyond imagining. Because Phoenix is such a willing and capable accomplice, we feel every second of it. The fragile, eggshell sanctity of Beau's mental and physical well-being are compromised well beyond most of our breaking points and then, just as things begin to slow down, we enter a deeper, brighter, more psychedelic phase of our protagonist's not-so-gradual undoing. Things start to get weird after that.
Phoenix obviously finds some sort of satisfaction in his own on-camera transformation (if not degradation) and here he volunteers for an ongoing series of abuses that, even in the imaginary recreation, seem potentially harmful. When he's not being chased or stabbed or poisoned, he is alone with his thoughts, trapped in his terrible waking life; he is usually whimpering or screaming.
Which makes it appropriately funny to say Beau is Afraid is a work of high comedy. As real as the tortures visited upon our poor boy may be, Phoenix and Aster are collaborating on an intricately connected series of traveling comic vignettes that just happen to be frequently horrific.
Horror is Aster's lingua franca, but his plots and ideas stem from both a greater study of cinema and of life than one genre can really contain. He wants to freak us out with what we're seeing but he'd also like us to freak out in our examination of our own reactions.
Beau Is Afraid exists as much in our own meditations on our emotional reactions and our patience or impatience with its subject as it does in the progression of Beau's descent into the hell/womb of his maternal relationship. There's Roth, Kafka, Cronenberg, Sturgess, West, Guilliam plus the Greeks and Shakespeare, and probably a number of grace notes I'm too far removed from academia to recognize. It's likely already being criticized for masculine self-indulgence; this is not unfair. But there was a time when we asked indulgence of popular art, be it music, literature or cinema. And Aster has executed this particular extended mental masturbation session with such control, such magisterial aesthetics, such a singular representation of neurosis and joy deferred, that I welcome the indulgence. Manifold though its references may be, there is nothing quite like Beau Is Afraid.
And, if you're in on the joke, there's a lot to like. R. 179M. MINOR.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.
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Fortuna Theatre is temporarily closed due to earthquake damage. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.