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12 May 2023

Beau Is Afraid is a cartoonishly Freudian horror

Ari Aster’s black comedy about malign maternal influence is full of cod-psychology that makes Psycho look like a Mother’s Day card.

By Ryan Gilbey

Beau Is Afraid – but of what? The quick answer is: his mother. Ari Aster’s ambitious follow-up to the remarkable folk-horror nightmare Midsommar is a black comedy about malign maternal influence that makes Psycho resemble a Mother’s Day card. Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), a balding, sweaty, persecuted sad-sack, has bought a plane ticket that will take him to the parental home in Florida on the anniversary of his father’s death. To say that events conspire against him getting there would be an understatement. When walking from a therapy session to his apartment, which is in the same dilapidated, graffiti-covered building as a sex club called Erectus Ejectus, he must dodge rampaging zombie-like thugs and a naked, knife-wielding psychopath, as well as avoiding the corpses and car fires strewn across the apocalyptic hellscape that he calls home.

Once inside, he finds the building is infested with venomous brown recluse spiders. Oh, and the water has been shut off. Water is important here. Handing out Beau’s anxiety medication, his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) tells him: “Always take with water. Always.” The question he puts to Beau about his toxic relationship with his mother involves water, too: “If the last time you drank from the well it made you sick, would you return to the same well?”

The catalyst for one terrifying sequence is a simple quest for a bottle of water. Beau also has flashbacks to a cruise he went on as a teenager, during which a man drowned in the ship’s swimming pool, and to a childhood memory of being dragged towards running water by his mother.

On the way home from therapy, he passes a boy whose own mother is pulling him away from the fountain where he is playing with a toy boat. “Do not leave my sight!” she shrieks. Beau can relate. Like the matriarch who vanishes only to reappear in the sky to scold and embarrass her son in Woody Allen’s short film Oedipus Wrecks, Beau’s mother (Patti LuPone) seems forever to be watching and shaming him, even after she is involved in a freak chandelier accident.

As all this might suggest, Beau Is Afraid takes the form of an extended panic attack. (Very extended: the film runs a minute shy of three hours.) In his attempt to get home to mother, Beau becomes a kind of surrogate son within other families. He is taken in by a cheery couple (Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane) after they accidentally run him over. Later, he falls in with a young pregnant woman (Hayley Squires) and her woodland theatre company Orphans of the Forest. He becomes first a member of the audience and then part of the play itself, which incorporates bristling animation and tells the alternative story of Beau’s life, showing him as a farmer, a husband and a father to three sons. “We like to blur the line between audience and performer,” says one company member, mirroring the film’s trick of immersing us in Beau’s subconscious.

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The device of following a bewildered protagonist into a spatially disorienting world that runs on dream logic has literary precedents (Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled) as well as cinematic ones, whether recent (Mother!, Synecdoche, New York) or more distant (Eraserhead, Barton Fink). Beau himself, though, is an unformed blob of neuroses rather than a character. Phoenix can be a compelling actor even when his motives are opaque, as they were in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology drama The Master, but here he is an intentionally recessive presence. His performance amounts to a long and baffled reaction shot as he gawps at the bizarre sights around him: a hysterical teenager drinking paint, a former soldier who still thinks he is at war, even at one point an attic-dwelling monster made of grossly oversized male genitalia.

Deliberate overkill, though, comes with a clear risk: when everything is outlandish, nothing is. Beau Is Afraid should certainly be applauded for its originality and its confrontational tenor, but not its cartoonishly Freudian horror or the script’s meagre cod-psychology. Wasn’t it exactly this tendency that Mel Brooks parodied in his patchy-but-fun Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety? That film ended with Brooks, playing the hero modelled on James Stewart in Vertigo, accessing with his therapist’s help a memory of himself as a baby toppling from his high-chair while his mother and father argued obliviously. “I understand now,” he cries triumphantly. “It’s not heights I’m afraid of – it’s parents!”

Beau Is Afraid is in cinemas from 19 May

[See also: A Winnie-the-Pooh horror film? Welcome to the public domain]

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List