Having given us two classic scary movies with Hereditary and Midsommar, film-maker Ari Aster now unfortunately beckons us down the rabbit hole for a giant and epically pointless odyssey of hipster non-horror. Running at over three hours, Beau Is Afraid is a colossal recovered memory of mock Oedipal agony which is scary, boring and sad in approximate proportions of 1 to 4 to 2. It’s a movie in which Aster has surrendered some of his own originality and distinction for an indulgent, derivative flourish that seems to pastiche Charlie Kaufman or Darren Aronofsky’s crazy Mother! or maybe even Richard Kelly’s much controverted Southland Tales.
Joaquin Phoenix is on really uninteresting form, playing to his weaknesses as an actor as he gives a narcissistic performance of pain, sporting a permanently zonked expression of anxiety and torpid self-pity at the misery that surrounds him. He plays Beau, a middle-aged man now living in squalor and stricken with depression, regularly seeing a therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) for anxiety and taking meds. These tend to undermine the surreal grimness of his urban surroundings; is he just hallucinating? The pure oddness of this alt-reality urban dystopia, though very striking in its way, slightly brings into question how seriously we are supposed to take it all in the first place.
Clearly on or over the verge of a breakdown, Beau is afraid of his mother, whom he is now preparing to visit. But various bizarre events conspire against him; he misses his plane and must now journey overland – and travel inward into his mind to make a reckoning with what this overbearing woman has done to him. He winds up staying in the home of Roger and Grace, a well- meaning, uptight couple played by Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan, who are convulsed with grief at the loss of their soldier son in action.
Having been threatened by their late son’s traumatised friend Jeeves (Denis Menochet), whom they have also taken in, Beau must make another of what will be a regular series of escapes. He finds himself in a Danteesque forest, where he is befriended by Penelope (Hayley Squires), who is part of a travelling woodland theatre troupe performing a revelatory play. Ultimately, Beau must come to terms with his mother, played with imperious force by Patti LuPone, as well as a figure from his past played by Parker Posey.
The only times the film snaps into some sort of shape and deploys a real drama in which things are interestingly and really at stake are the flashback sections, with the teen Beau played by Armen Nahapetian and his young mother played by Zoe Lister-Jones. These are the primal scenes in which young Beau is afraid of the bath, and also falls in love with a girl he meets while taking a cruise, played by Julia Antonelli. It is in these sequences that the drama comes to life.
The rest of the time it’s style and mannerism, with Phoenix not tested as an actor in any way, content to coast through the movie like the Joker on Zoloft. And the final confrontation scene, in which the film almost comes to mean something, collapses into silliness. There are admittedly some of the interesting time-lapse hard cuts of the sort Aster gave us in Hereditary, switching from night to day and back. There are also laughs to be had with the giant monster Beau encounters in the attic, and what appears to be a reference to Bette Davis. But this happens at a time when the film seems to be asking us to take it seriously and sign up to its supposed sexual and emotional climax – to which we have had a three-hour run-up. There is nothing there: Beau may well be afraid, but the audience might be feeling otherwise.
• Beau Is Afraid is released on 20 April in Australia, 21 April in the US and 19 May in the UK.