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Beau is Afraid puts Joaquin Phoenix through a punishing arthouse endurance test

Joaquin Phoenix as Beau Wassermann in Beau Is Afraid - Takashi Seida
Joaquin Phoenix as Beau Wassermann in Beau Is Afraid - Takashi Seida

Ari Aster’s new film, Beau is Afraid, doesn’t work. But more to the point, I’m not sure it’s actually meant to. The 36-year-old director of Hereditary and Midsommar has followed those two acclaimed horror features with a calculated swerve into arthouse obscurantism: a three-hour film bro decathlon, designed to break the faith of all but the most sweatily fervent devotees.

It’s reminiscent, in a way, of Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s sweepingly bizarre follow-up to Donnie Darko, which drew deafening boos at its disastrous Cannes premiere in 2006. But Kelly's film (which is now enjoying something of a cult revival) always felt like it had been made with the best of intentions: it was an ambitious but muddled big swing from a young auteur earnestly running with his newfound creative freedom. Beau is Afraid, on the other hand, seems like Aster sat down one day and said to himself: right, I’m going to make a Southland Tales.

It’s about… well, that’s part of the puzzle. Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau Wassermann, a nebbishy paranoiac who lives in a bare apartment in an unnamed urban hellhole, overrun with lunatics and tramps. When his overbearing mother (Patti LuPone) dies in an accident that harks back to one of Hereditary’s most gruesome images, Beau must make the journey to her funeral.

But like a Kafka protagonist, he becomes fractally sidetracked by encounters with zany and/or malevolent strangers. (Like Amerika’s Karl Rossmann, one of these even involves a “Nature Theatre” – here a welcoming drama troupe in the woods, whose members include Hayley Squires swathed in green velvet, and a large man dressed as a ladybird.)

Every leg of the trip is a nightmare. Or rather, each scene is like a dramatisation of a specific bad dream, with one or two weird, needling specifics – sometimes as small as the name of a ready meal – poking out of a soup of unnerving vagueness. Inner-city horrors give way to freakish suburbia, where Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan’s bourgeois power couple nurse Beau back to health after a traffic accident – in which a nude Phoenix, fleeing a serial killer, is briefly pancaked across their camper van’s windscreen. We also get a flashback to a formative childhood crush (Parker Posey plays her adult counterpart; a less meaty role than you initially hope), a partly animated sylvan interlude, and later a dire maternal reckoning and show trial.

To Aster’s credit, you only rarely sense he’s just channelling David Lynch (or Charlie Kaufman) here. By and large, the film’s coolly austere house style and blurring of the line between “funny” and “mortally traumatising” are all his, spine-pricklingly familiar from his first two films. And Phoenix’s thrillingly physical performance, full of physical and spiritual pratfalls, harks back to Buster Keaton: he’s sometimes stony, sometimes fragile, sometimes somehow both at once.

The issue here isn’t the moment-to-moment loopiness. It’s that the film’s cumulative unmanageableness soon starts to look like a put-on – Aster seems much more interested in pushing the limits of his audience, rather than his own. The recycled ideas from Hereditary and Midsommar (including another nasty fall onto jagged rocks) don’t exactly help his case.

Nor, sadly, does the semi-animated interlude bridging the second and third acts. As it does elsewhere, the craftsmanship here wows, with live-action mask theatre, stop-motion and hand-drawn animation combining to create a sort of living pop-up book.

But the narration over the top is, I’m afraid, complete twaddle – a load of synthetic singsong folklore that sounds like someone typed “Neil Gaiman children’s book” into ChatGPT. Like everything else here, good, bad and smugly obnoxious, it ultimately just feels like another question in an epic test of patience.


15 cert, 178 mins; in cinemas now