Beau is Afraid

Beau Wasserman lives in what we believe to be a not-too-distant future, in which crime and urban decay permeate the inner city, and the police are practically non-existent.  This unnamed hellhole of a city is so overwrought with violence, homelessness, noise, and disturbingly unhinged inhabitants that we can’t help but laugh.  It’s not truly funny, but the depiction of blight is so over the top we simply cannot take it seriously.

And that’s the key to understanding and digesting Ari Aster’s complex, overlong “Beau is Afraid.”  On the one hand, it borders on “masterpiece;” on the other, I never want to see it again.  This is a film impossible to watch passively.  When it is seen at home, viewers will either be disgusted and turn it off, or enraptured and stay with it ‘til the depressing conclusion.

Long bleak dream

The entire exercise, written by Aster, presents itself as one long, bleak, disheartening dream.  On the surface, “Beau is Afraid” is about a man’s almost comically doomed effort to visit his mother in a distant city.  But on a deeper level, this is a film about paranoia and anxiety in our increasingly isolated society.  Could the dread and horror of “Beau is Afraid” be that far off?

Key scene

In yet another risky, unconventional role, the great Joaquin Phoenix plays the protagonist – a single, friendless man with a simple desire to see his mother.  When his luggage and apartment key are stolen, he calls Mom, explains his situation, and advises that he will likely miss his flight and be forced to reschedule.  This phone call is perhaps the key to understanding Beau’s family dynamic.  Raised without a father or siblings, Beau depends on his mother for everything.  He asks her what he should do, and how he should feel about it.  A grown man so beholden to his mother that he is unable to make spur-of-the-moment decisions without her input.  From this early scene, we realize Beau’s mother must be overbearing and dominant, and Beau will simply be carried from situation to situation – unable to affect his fate.  Things will happen to Beau, but Beau will not be able to initiate any activity on his own, save for running from the constant danger that seems to follow him everywhere.

Symbolic nightmare

Without the ability to lock his apartment, his home is overtaken by a group of unruly homeless people.  Already, Aster’s narrative has devolved into symbolic nightmare from which Beau will not be able to escape.  Stabbed almost to death in the street by a deranged criminal, Beau awakens several days later in the home of Roger and Grace (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan).  Roger is the surgeon who tended Beau’s wounds.  At first, the couple appears to be the one bright spot in Beau’s recent trajectory.  Ahh, but there must be a dark side, right?

Roger and Grace lost a son in military action, and Beau would appear to be (at least temporarily) a replacement.  Roger and Grace also care for their son’s old army buddy Jeeves (Denis Menochet), a man whose PTSD is so great as to border on comical.  (Notice how things border on comical throughout “Beau is Afraid,” but the comedy is so dark we don’t laugh?)  Roger and Grace also have a teenage daughter named Toni (Kylie Rogers) who instantly hates Beau because her parents put him in her room.  I know her anger is misplaced, but this is all part of the abhorrence that is Beau’s life.

Another plot twist

Eventually forced to escape from the good doctor, Beau runs into the woods where he is “adopted” by a traveling theatre troupe who exert an enormous amount of energy to stage a play in the middle of the night for no one but themselves.  The play seems to be a fairly accurate depiction of what Beau’s life would have been like had he married and had a family.  Beau envisions himself in the lead role, but even here, the narrative spins his life into an eternity of doom and gloom.

Beau’s mother

By the time we finally have a chance to meet Beau’s mother, she is everything we expected, and then some.  Played by Patti LuPone, Mona Wasserman is demanding, self-centered, and downright evil – particularly toward her only son.  I won’t begin to explain why; as with everything else in “Beau is Afraid,” it’s complicated.  Suffice to say the extended denouement features enough twists and turns that we almost stop caring.  Aster would appear to have written himself into a hole, although there’s no way this account was going to end on a happy note.

Effort and energy

A lot of effort and energy went into “Beau is Afraid,” and I’m always appreciative of directors who dare to show me something new.  “Beau is Afraid” is not like anything I’ve ever seen before, and for that I tip my hat to Aster.  However, I don’t want to see this film again.  It is off-putting, draining, and difficult to watch – in much the same way Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” was an unpleasant slog.

Contrast to a better film

Again, I appreciate the effort, but I can’t help but contrast “Beau is Afraid” to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 masterpiece “Magnolia.”  Like “Beau is Afraid,” “Magnolia” was a three-hour psychological drama by a director given the opportunity to craft his own vision, free from studio interference.  Anderson used the opportunity to show off.  His characters’ shattered lives were presented in an unfiltered and brazen manner.  And just when we wondered how on earth he was going to tie together all the loose ends of his original screenplay, Anderson hit us with the most improbable, unforgettable sequence in recent cinema.  “Magnolia” was obviously the work of a master of his craft.

But here’s the difference:  When “Magnolia” ended, I wanted to turn invisible while the staff prepared the theatre for the next showing.  Even at a three-hour-plus run time, I was so impressed with “Magnolia” I wanted to watch the entire presentation again.  Right now!  It was my #1 film of 1999 (a very strong year for motion pictures).  I ranked it behind only “Pulp Fiction” on my list of the decade’s best offerings.  This year, I doubt I’ll rank “Beau is Afraid” in my Top Ten.  I’m impressed with the effort, but not the end result.  Filmmakers can only disturb and shock an audience so far, and then their work becomes disenchanting.  I look forward to Aster’s next effort, and while keeping his own vision, I hope he takes a cue or to from Anderson.






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