(director/writer: Ari Aster; cinematographer: Pawel Pogorzelski; editor: Lucian Johnston; music: Bobby Krlic; cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Beau Wassermann), Parker Posey (Elaine), Nathan Lane (Roger), Amy Ryan (Grace), Denis Menochet (Jeeves), Armen Nahapetian (Beau as a teen), Patti LuPone (Beau’s mom, Mona Wassermann), Zoe Lister Jones (Young Mona), Richard Kind (Family Lawyer), Julia Antonelli (Teen Elaine), Stephen McKinley Henderson (therapist),  Hayley Squires (Penelope); Runtime: 179; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Lars Knudsen/Ari Aster; A24; 2023)

“A bleak film that unloads some ‘elevated horror’ on us.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ari Aster
(“Hereditary”/”Midsommar) presents a bleak film that unloads some ‘elevated horror’ on us in the arty director’s anxiety-ridden three-hour running time neurotic comedy/drama about a gifted but screwed-up man-child named Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) and how he has dealt all his life with his mommy issues, and now must overcome them on his cross-country trip home to visit mom in Florida (but becomes stymied by missing his plane and forced to go there by other means, where he encounters various people). 

  The “Beau is Afraid” film is based on Aster’s short film Beau, which is greatly expanded here.

Beau is a fifty-year-old on a mental health crisis path, as he’s been stunted in life by his overbearing neurotic Jewish single mom, Mona Wasserman (
Patti LuPone, the Broadway legend), and has become a grown man terrified of life and stuck seeing a therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) who has no answers for the mamma’s boy. The inner-city world Beau lives in is an ugly one: living in squalor in an apartment building covered in graffiti, walking on crime-ridden streets with tasteless porn stores called Erectus Ejectus, dealing with taking weird meds that make him hallucinate, fearing spiders and falling apart because of his inability to process how to act human. Beau must also deal with his rigid adopted father, Roger (Nathan Lane) and his uptight wife (Amy Ryan). In the narrative, we witness one nightmarish situation after another for the schlub, as even an animation sequence is slipped in showing his fantasies.

Things are terrifying for the disoriented Beau, as he remains unhinged throughout. The poor chump is trapped in the horrors of his fearful mind, and can’t become free to act as himself.

The film implodes with a false note climax that ends the film on an unsatisfying wrong note.

It’s a grim Oedipal narrative, with a Kafka-like story that has no way out. It pointedly tells us how we have so much fear drilled into us we can’t act on finding our own true selves.

At times it’s absurdly funny, at other times it’s chilling and noxious. But it’s never boring.

Parker Posey plays the childhood girl Beau lusted after a
nd kept himself pure for, whom he sees when he’s middle-aged and any romantic notions between them have turned sadistic.

If nothing else this is a strangely funny film, much different than the up-and-coming talented Aster’s other two scary horror films.

REVIEWED ON 4/15/2023  GRADE: B-