“I really thought I was gonna die, my whole life.”Beau Wassermann
A darling of the A24 production company, writer/director Ari Aster’s third feature is A24’s most expensive to date, an anxiety-ridden, absurdist dark comedy that displays flashes of brilliance within its messy and often inscrutable three hours. Ostensibly about a man’s fraught journey home to visit his mother, Beau is repeatedly waylaid by strangers in a narratively loose series of surreal events in the vein of the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Though? This is not so direct an adaptation of The Odyssey but its influence is evident. Pawel Pogorzelski, who has shot all of Aster’s feature films, has his work cut out here as each sequence adopts a wildly different style, from the agoraphobic terror of a city block and a sitcom-bright house in the suburbs to a nighttime forest and a vibrantly saturated handmade landscape of cardboard set dressing — it must have been like shooting a dozen short films at once. The through-line is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the neurotic Beau, though this is far from his best work as he stumbles through in dazed paranoia. More interesting are the repeated glimpses of his mother and his childhood as the source of his fragile state, with memories bubbling to the surface, often literally emerging through water. Presented entirely from Beau’s unreliable perspective, Aster provides little opportunity for the viewer to find their footing within this heightened reality — a challenging experience that some will relish. As the credits appear over an audience silently shuffling out of a vast auditorium, there is no question that Beau is Afraid is an audacious endeavour but it is hard to tell if we have travelled any distance at all.