Some filmmakers provoke extreme responses in their audience. Ari Aster has made an entire aesthetic out of brutally dividing people against themselves. Think of a possessed Toni Collette methodically garrotting herself in Hereditary, eyes fixed accusatorily on her son. Or the wizened old Swedish cultist in Midsommar who achieves self-actualization by swan diving off a cliff and smashing headfirst into a rock, like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon directed by Michael Haneke.
Aster is polarizing for reasons beyond his proclivity for blood-spattered set pieces. Perhaps more than any of his generational peers—the upstart genre-mongers cultivated by tastemaking distributors like A24—he fits the template of a capital-A auteur. He likes distanced, symmetrical master shots, and composes his frames to emphasize negative space (which tends to fill up, invisibly, with free-floating dread). And in imposing a distinctive style and forcing viewers to meet him on his terms, he inspires passionate reactions. Earlier this week, at a preview of Aster’s new feature Beau Is Afraid, no less than Martin Scorsese called the director an “extraordinary” filmmaker. At another recent screening, an irate audience member—who was not Martin Scorsese—reportedly stood up during the closing credits and uttered an ultimatum to the people around him: “I better not hear a single person f***ing clap.”
The truth about Beau Is Afraid exists somewhere between these extremes, but A24 has its eyes on the bottom line. Reportedly budgeted at $35 million, the film is the distributor’s riskiest investment to date, and gets at the monkey’s paw aspect of an auteurist approach to film financing: the possibility of self-indulgence run amok. The myth of Michael Cimino as a New Hollywood Icarus still endures, and while Aster has little of Cimino’s bombast, he’s already the subject of industry finger-wagging. Last seen chiding Paul Thomas Anderson for his zero-fucks mandate on Licorice Pizza, self-styled awards guru Erick Weber got traction by tweeting that the filmmaker had showed “reckless disregard” for audiences and that A24 would have to “answer for” their “dumpster fire.”
The image of Aster and his backers being called to court to face a jury of industry inquisitors is, in some ways, the best publicity they could have asked for; they should consider selling pearls for easily scandalized critics to clutch after screenings. It’s also an image right out of Beau, where, at the end of his absurd adventures, Joaquin Phoenix’s eponymous protagonist—a lonely, emotionally codependent bachelor still dangling forlornly at the end of his umbilical cord—is subjected to a surreal show trial inventorying his failures as a son and a human being. (His overbearing Jewish mother is played by Patti LuPone—a masterstroke of casting.) Guilt and its myriad manifestations has been Aster’s major theme since the string of acclaimed shorts that led him to make Hereditary, one of which—2011’s Beau, recently scrubbed from the internet—plays in retrospect like a proof of concept for his new epic. In interviews, Aster has addressed the pressures of working on a bigger canvas and throwing increasingly more money at his ideas, and also the uncomfortable fact—again reminiscent of his sad-sack hero and his all-consuming persecution complex—that there are plenty of people out there expecting (or rooting for) him to fail. “I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t aware that I was despised in certain circles,” he told Reverse Shot’s Michael Koresky. “What’s a little tricky about that is that those people tend to have the same taste as me. I’ll see, oh this person hates me, but loves all the filmmakers I love and hates all the same filmmakers I hate. So, there’s the sense of ‘What have I done to alienate this person who I otherwise agree with?’”
A better question might be: What hasn’t Aster done to alienate his viewers? From its daringly abstracted opening frames—seen from the point of view of a newborn infant and soundtracked by its shrieks—to its stunningly confrontational final shot (more on that one later), Beau Is Afraid stares down lovers and haters alike with a confidence belied by its gaping sense of insecurity. At once jittery and magisterial, it’s the work of an artist with his game face on, even if he’s also occasionally wiping sweat off his brow. Even more than Hereditary and Midsommar—the latter of which was the kind of horror movie that can divide even the staunchest genre fans against themselves—Beau has been engineered to make indifference an impossibility. It’s a movie whose flaws are not only at least as interesting as its strengths, but may actually be the better reason to see it. For those who enjoyed (and were unnerved by) the shivery editing rhythms and occasionally appalling money shots of Hereditary and Midsommar, Beau offers more of the same, except unfiltered through genre tropes or clichés. Here, Aster serves his neuroses straight up, and the result is a paradox: a film that’s suggestive or derivative of a dozen other titles yet unfolds as an original vision. It’s a movie that we haven’t seen before.
Beau’s narrative is divided roughly into four sections, only two of which are worth describing here: the element of surprise is one of Aster’s strongest tactics, so it’s best to tread lightly. In the first movement, we’re introduced to the possibility that the lachrymose Beau is a product of his environment—specifically a tiny yet terrifying stretch of New York City etched as an Ed Koch era nightmare, squalid, lawless, and patrolled by knife-wielding serial offenders who claim their victims in broad daylight. In one slapstick set piece, Beau has to sprint from the street to the lobby of his dilapidated building to avoid being assaulted; once upstairs, he glances at the street like it’s a demilitarized zone, cowering in fear in what’s obviously a daily routine. Not that it’s much safer inside: the superintendent is a cipher; the neighbors are noisy, verbally abusive sociopaths; and somebody’s lost a venomous brown recluse spider on the premises. By the time Beau’s apartment has been invaded by a cabal of degenerates, it’s hard to see the action as anything but a paranoid fantasy, except that Aster plays it straight; just because Beau is stuck inside his own head doesn’t mean the outside world isn’t trying to kill him.
At this point, casting Phoenix as a woebegone outsider skirts self-parody, but his stunned stillness goes a long way toward selling the idea of Beau as a mute witness to his own life: somebody so inured to his own carefully medicated mediocrity that he doesn’t even want to rise above it. And only an actor with Phoenix’s particular sort of emotional translucence could nail the two phone call sequences that catalyze the movie’s plot (such as it is): the first a short, lacerating exchange with LuPone after he’s forced to cancel their annual visit, the second an absurdist back-and-forth with a stranger during which this eternal mama’s boy’s worst fears are not just confirmed but exceeded in ways that he (and we) can barely believe possible. Having been led to believe that his mother is dead—and mortified at the possibility of continuing on without her—he begins a melancholy pilgrimage to her home upstate, only to be immediately waylaid by a car accident and deposited into a new kind of peril. The people who ran him over are a prosperous suburban couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan) who seem remarkably, and increasingly disconcertingly, determined to nurse him back to health. Here, the ratio of disorientation and tedium briefly goes out of whack; Beau’s hosts are so obviously unwell that suspense congeals into impatience. The surface details of the sequence are impressively random—at one point, Beau gets forced to smoke the world’s fattest joint by the couple’s aggro teenage daughter, who’s also into huffing paint—but the underlying meanings are too obvious: Beau’s entrapment and infantilization at the hands of an overprotective maternal figure is like a funhouse mirror of his own submissive family history.
And so it goes: After Beau escapes his well-appointed purgatory and hits the road, the movie settles into a pattern whereby aspects of its hero’s inner life keep getting externalized, to the point that the world around him feels made in his image. On the one hand, Aster’s refusal to establish boundaries between reality and fantasy is genuinely ambitious, mining a Lynchian tradition in which such differentiations are beside the point. On the other, as symbolists go, Aster is fairly literal-minded, which is why no matter how bizarre Beau Is Afraid gets, it never feels authentically mysterious. Some filmmakers—Lynch, or Luis Buñuel, or Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or Claire Denis—have a real gift for enigma, for surrendering wholly to their unconscious and letting it spill out onscreen. And while Aster is expressly working on a kind of astral plane, you can feel him trying to finesse his effects. He’s too clever to let his movie fully go under, and while this alertness leads to a couple of great laughs—like the ending of an animated interlude whose extended running time is at once an indulgence and a joke—it also denies us the pleasures of moviemaking with eyes wide shut. In a movie like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—which one can’t help but think of while watching Phoenix cringe his way through a set of incestuous visions in search of psychic and sexual relief—the protagonist’s psychic damage is a conduit to sophisticated ideas about American history, culture, and society; for all the vivid, outrageous details in Beau Is Afraid—stylized Oedipal flashbacks; weaponized ’90s pop-radio music cues; a special-effects body-horror sight gag somehow combining Possession with Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask)—its virtuosity is in the service of something distinctly single-minded.
A case could be made, of course, that solipsism itself is a vital 21st century subject, and that the point of Beau Is Afraid is to confront it head on—an encounter that a more sentimental filmmaker might try to stage as a triumph. But Aster, who is already a master of sick-joke endings—especially Midsommar, with its equation of catharsis and living taxidermy—doubles down on his speciality, and in finally risking the perception that his new opus, for all its luxuriously subsidized weirdness, is finally, fatally pointless, he shows the balls alluded to by Beau’s gallery of literal and figurative dick jokes. If a viewer were to suggest that the last half hour of Beau Is Afraid consistently hits below the belt, they wouldn’t be wrong—there’s at least one long-delayed money shot that belongs in the Bad Taste Hall of Fame. But it’s the choice Aster makes at a certain point to stop throwing punches at all that’s truly startling, and even moving—a striking case in an otherwise overstuffed movie of less being more. The final scene’s bleakness is exacerbated by the way Aster and his cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, turn the screen into a mirror—one that not only reflects the possible meaning (or lack thereof) of this uniquely personal movie and slyly prophesies its potential commercial failure, but also stares us down in our seats. The story of the guy telling everybody not to applaud during the credits of Beau Is Afraid only gets funnier—and more profound—once you’ve seen it and can picture the precise backdrop of his plea. For what it’s worth, it was only when I realized that Aster had landed on his closing tableaux—and that he was going to hold it until the theater emptied out—that I felt like clapping.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.