Joaquin Phoenix has spent much of the past decade playing irreversibly broken men. In fact, calling The Master’s Freddie Quell or Joker’s Arthur Fleck broken is probably an understatement; no, the characters Phoenix has specialized in as of late are walking husks of despair. They’re so aggressively miserable they could feel like self-parody in another actor’s hands.
But Phoenix doesn’t appear to have a self-conscious bone in his body, and his commitment allows him to disappear completely into a role. Beau is Afraid is yet another showcase for Phoenix’s distinct talent. It’s also a showcase for director Ari Aster’s (Hereditary and Midsommar) formidable talent as a visual artist; he deploys incredibly intricate camerawork to create tension in a way very few modern filmmakers even attempt. It’s only in his storytelling that Aster occasionally falls short, which rears its head in Beau’s messy third act.
On the other hand, the first 90 minutes of this three-hour black comedy is among the best storytelling you’ll see all year. From the beginning, Beau is in a state of extreme anxiety, and you really can’t blame the guy: The city he lives in is a surreal hellscape of crime and degeneracy. The streets are littered with garbage and the occasional dead body, scary-looking vagrants often start chasing Beau the moment he locks eyes with them, and a nude serial killer named the Birthday Boy Stab Man is currently at large. If Beau needs to leave the house to go on an errand, he often needs to sprint there just to make the trip unscathed.
Whether the setting is just a manifestation of Beau’s anxiety (for which he’s heavily medicated by his oft-visited therapist) or part of his reality is never clear, but the movie’s first half is a morbid blast as we watch him try to navigate this world. Aster packs the background of every frame with enough visual gags to rival MAD, and Phoenix plays Beau’s terrified bewilderment to superb effect. Once Beau is forced to leave his apartment to pay a visit to his mother, a deranged comedy of errors ensues.
Where things go from there honestly defy description, but every time you think things can’t possibly get any worse for our title character, Aster one-ups himself yet again to raise the stakes even higher. The movie gets plenty of laughs showing Beau barely escape one terrible situation, only to find himself in an even worse one. When Beau manages to dodge a reckless policeman shooting at him and turns around to see a different man charging at him with a knife, only to then get hit by a van… that more or less sums up his everyday existence.
The movie’s unrelenting absurdity eventually proves to be a double-edged sword. About halfway through, Beau’s journey takes a hard turn for the metaphysical. What starts as a chaotic, live-action Adult Swim cartoon becomes an introspective Charlie Kaufman film complete with didactic monologues that serve to criticize both the character and the filmmaker, Freudian dissections of insecure men, stop-motion animated sequences and a palpable hatred toward its protagonist.
The term “self-indulgent” is often used a lazy way for someone to say, “This movie was too weird for me,” but the final 20 minutes of Beau is Afraid are the first time Aster’s unwavering commitment dedication to his vision felt, well, self-indulgent to me. Although I obviously can’t speak for Aster, the last stretch feels like we’ve stopped telling what had previously been a very compelling story about Beau to instead psychoanalyze Aster himself. Movies can frequently be therapeutic, but they shouldn’t feel like attending someone else’s therapy session.