Ho boy. I really planned poorly for this film. Despite the fact it’s one I’d wanted to see for quite a while just based on the wacky trailer. First, I started it way too late in the evening, unaware that it’s three hours long. Second, I… Well, I might have eaten something that is legal in the state of NJ with little to no understanding of how it would enhance or intensify the experience of Beau is Afraid. A movie — dare I say — that does just fine on its own without the aid of an intoxicant. It’s a fucked-up horror show of a movie that definitely should be taken in with a clear and sober mind. Trust me.
This all said, I’m not sure how my experience was skewed by my poor choices. But, from what I’ve read, I’m not sure how much my altered state or the late hour might have changed my perception. The whole thing is like what I imagine is a bad trip is like anyway. Which I think was an intensional choice by filmmaker, Ari Aster. Imagine a way more nebbishy, surreal version of After Hours. A confusing, confounding, disturbing journey of a loser named Beau (Joaquin Phoenix). Stumbling from catastrophe to catastrophe in a frustrating series of unfortunate events as he tries to get from a nightmare version of something that may be the Lower East Side (by way of Canada) to his mother’s house for the anniversary of his father’s death. A father who died in the act of conceiving him. And a mother who in the interim has grown rich creating a company that makes an amalgam of junky consumer products.
Like a lot of the film, the entirety of time and space is kind of ignored. Or is purposely bent in a way that it makes no sense. We know Beau has a flight booked to fly home to his mom. We don’t know where that home is. But after he is hit by a truck trying to flee a homicidal maniac in the street outside his apartment, he wakes up in a bed that is somehow within running distance and a quick hitchhike to the place he was meant to fly to. Or at least that’s how it appears. Somehow Beau never seems to question why the couple who ends up hitting him in NYC and brings him to convalesce at their home just happen to be semi-close to his mom’s house. Which, once again, he had planned to fly to. Then time just seems to kind of pause. We think we know how long it’s been, but it’s never quite that clear. And then someone chugs a can of paint.
He continues his journey and encounters a really, really long play put on by a bunch of people who live in the woods. It’s like a Station Eleventroupe, but way more fucked up. It makes the film feel every minute of its three hours. If there was a fast-forward section that could be excised without losing much, this would be it. It was at this point I started to doubt my choice. Not even the earlier shot of Phoenix’s prosthetically enhanced swollen scrotum made me hit stop, but this elongated scene had my finger hovering. The film kind of continues in this vein, with scene after scene that will either leave you amazed or shaking your head in horror. I won’t spoil too much, but suffice it to say that there is a shocking death, a very large penis puppet and an ending that felt a bit like your buddy’s short film treatment from freshman year of college. The fact that Aster actually filmed it is both hair-brained and weirdly brave. Not in the traditional sense of brave, of course, but like film brave. The balls on this dude.
So what, ultimately, is this thing about? Jewish mother guilt, it seems. I may know a thing or two about that subject. But even in my experience, this is pretty extreme. Beau’s mother works to make her son scared of everything growing up — especially sex. She creates a shell of a human being. And then continues to undermine his self-esteem and confidence by making his failure to thrive all about her and his clear lack of care for… her. It’s like slashing your own tires and then berating the car for not being able to get you to the airport on time because it doesn’t love you enough to drive on four flat tires. Brutal stuff. They could have called it How to Build a Better Incel. Yes, I know that’s not a catchy title, but this is what happens. That all said, I’m not sure what Aster is trying to say here. I can’t imagine his mother is very happy watching this. She is the horror in this horror. The one who quite literally sinks him.
Look, I’m afraid this isn’t a very fun movie. It’s ostensibly a comedy, but the comedic moments are of the absurd type. The shocking type. The pathetic type. Phoenix mumbles and whines his way through the whole film; a human apology. It’s hard to watch. Real, real uncomfortable. For three hours. And all for a very confusing ending that I think says that Jewish guilt, and the mothers attached to it, can ruin your life, make you a loser and then make you sit in judgement about being a loser. Self-fulfilling prophecy. Snake eating its own tail. Irony. Whatever it is, Aster clearly has had enough. But, unlike, his character, he is not afraid [to make a very divisive, three-hour film about the inner turmoil of family trauma.]