At one point in Beau is Afraid, we are treated to the once seen, never forgotten sight of a gigantic prosthetic cock and testicles. A metaphor for its hero’s sexual anxieties and hang ups, it’s also a literal manifestation of the ballsiness of the filmmaking on offer here.
After elevating genre cinema with Hereditary and Midsommar to new heights of horror, Ari Aster’s third feature is even more ambitious, sending a deeply passive protagonist to visit his mother that transforms into a 179-minute odyssey (read: oddyssey) of increasingly nutzoid misadventures. It’s Aster back on his frazzled-families bullshit but this time swaps terror for a twisted kind of black humour and ultimately finds new notes not present in his work to date.
For most of us, the only thing we have to navigate visiting our mothers are train strikes and interrupting Countdown. Timid, balding depressive Beau Wasserman (Phoenix), has to contend with a neighbourhood beset by anarchy, a killer spider, aggressive lethal medication, a lack of cash, an unruly mob in his apartment and a naked serial killer named Birthday Boy Stab Man. In perhaps the most impressive filmmaking of his career, Aster piles on brilliant dark vignette after brilliant dark vignette. The result is a thrilling opening stanza, every twist and turn escalating Beau’s neuroses in funny, bravura, increasingly dizzying ways.
The upshot of the perfectly staged shenanigans is that Beau misses his flight. As he goes to re-book, he learns his mother has been killed, decapitated by a falling chandelier (yes, it’s that kind of film). But rather than a straightforward trip to a funeral, Aster throws in crazy curveballs for Beau to bat away, from nice-on-top-menacing-underneath suburbanites (Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan), a PTSD-informed vet (Denis Ménochet), and in the film’s biggest gamble but weakest stretch, a run-in with a theatrical troupe in a forest where the film becomes Beau’s life presented as a stage play augmented by striking animation (it’s that kind of film, too).
Ari Aster piles on brilliant dark vignette after brilliant dark vignette
It's not as tightly controlled as his previous efforts, but there is a fullness of human feeling here that is new in the Asterverse. That’s mostly down to Joaquin Phoenix, whose dialled-down intensity not only registers but also pulls you through the occasional longueur. The result is that rare contemporary film where you have no idea what’s going to happen next – we haven’t mentioned one of the most memorable sex scenes of the year – and in 2023 that is something to cherish.
In US theaters now and UK cinemas May 19.