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Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau Wassermann in "Beau is Afraid." Photo courtesy of IMDb.

REVIEW: ‘Beau is Afraid’ of brevity

This review contains spoilers 

Time to whip out your Ativan: auteur-at-large Ari Aster has returned for his third feature film, “Beau is Afraid.” Back at his old vices of troublesome familial dynamics and brutal weirdness, Aster now formats them into a hero’s journey with a darkly comic edge. “Beau is Afraid” is a valiant experiment diminished by its own bloated runtime and unsatisfying, loopy narrative structure.

The film follows the titular Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), an anxious and solitary man, as he attempts to return home for the burial of his overbearing mother Mona Wassermann. Along the way, he is plunged into a variety of surreal, tooth-pulling nightmare scenarios which serve to reaffirm Beau’s various Freudian neuroses.

Though Aster makes a strong departure from his two previous horror darlings “Midsommar” and “Hereditary,” he is quick to establish an unrelenting, hellish bubble for Beau to occupy. He lives in a cartoonishly violent neighborhood where a five-minute walk to the corner store could lead to him being locked out of his house by a gang of vagrants and taking a bath could lead to being run over by a truck. Aster drives this film like a racecar at the top, immediately disorienting the viewer.

Unfortunately, this tempo comes to a weary lull halfway through the movie and never truly picks back up again. As Beau stumbles across a traveling troupe of performers in the woods who tell the story of his life in an albeit stunning dream sequence, you start to get the feeling that the movie is flooded with too much too-much. Eventually, even the most jarring of revelations feels par for the course.

This is only worsened by the fact that Aster feels the need to milk every last ounce of intrigue out of each absurdity he introduces. Sequences that could have been five minutes are stretched to 20, and though I hate to be the person who gripes about the length of a film, it is disappointing to see a movie with such a strong momentum roll over and die part way through due to its disinterest in brevity.

Mona, portrayed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti LuPone, serves as a dense cloud of psychological burden over the film, waiting at any moment to pour down on Beau. His father, according to Mona, was one of many in his paternal line to have died immediately after having sex for the first time, leading Beau to live his entire life as a virgin.

Aster’s presentation of Mona as looming and controlling even in her death is one of the most effective bits of the story. Of course, he had to spoil it by revealing that Mona was in fact alive and faked her death to test Beau, only to proceed with beating the audience over the head with overbearing mean-mommy dialogue, just in case you were wondering how Aster feels about his mother after 2-and-a-half hours of Oedipal musings.

Even the most tedious parts of the screenplay, however, are given life by stellar performances across the board, each of which cradle the delicate logic of the world with great care. Phoenix’s performance is especially impressive (to little surprise) as he takes on the task of finding the internal logic of a character who lives in a world that abides by no logic at all.

The visuals also help to resuscitate the film in its slow moments — though the story does not flow consistently, the visual language moves smoothly from scene to scene, conjuring a lush journey and adding new layers just when you thought the world could not get any larger. It is brutal, big and not beholden to form: all of the most promising parts of the film living up to their best.

I truly want to remember this film for only its best parts — when they shined, they really shined. Unfortunately, the jarring disparities between the best and worst of the film left me feeling fatally indifferent to something that was obviously meant to conjure up the sharpest and most stirring of emotions. 

Though it’s worth a watch if not merely for its tonal shift from Aster’s prior movies, I didn’t not walk out of it with the vehement love nor hatred that the film has seemed to polarize audiences with. “Beau” is — just okay.

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Zara Roy is the copy chief at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at copychief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @zarazzledazzle 

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