Beau Is Afraid review: Joaquin Phoenix leads an audacious, indulgent black comedy

There’s a comfort to be found in the savage neuroses of Beau Is Afraid – if you think it’s hell to live inside of your own head, imagine what it’s like to live in Ari Aster’s. Aster’s film takes the so-traumatic-it’s-funny sequences of his previous work – Toni Collette frothing at the mouth in Hereditary, or Midsommar’s bad boyfriend going up in flames – and spins them into a three-hour comedy of bad vibes and ritual humiliation. It’s as memorable, audacious, and indulgent as you’d hope from A24’s most expensive film to date – and from a release that, according to a viral tweet last month, reportedly left one American cinemagoer so enraged that he stood up during the end credits and bellowed, “I better not hear a single person f***ing clap”.

Aster has enthusiastically assured us that there’s nothing autobiographical about Beau Is Afraid. Thank god, since it’s hard to read the film as anything but a drawn-out, highly paranoid spiral. It begins with its hero’s literal expulsion from the birth canal, wailing and bewildered, and ends with the Kafkaesque persecution of his guilty soul. In short, it’s life with catastrophic thinking at the wheel.

Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) wants to visit his mother. The universe makes clear it would rather he not, blocking his path with brown recluse spiders, butt-naked murderers, invisible thieves, social media-addicted teens, and (eek!) theatre kids. Beau starts his journey in his miserably spare apartment located in a reactionary conservative’s vision of the inner city. Bodies are left out in the street to rot. The air is thick with trash fire smoke. All graffiti is apocalyptic and ominous: “Kill children! F**k the Pope!” the walls scream. Beau shuffles around best he can. Then he gets hit by a truck.

He ends up in the mid-century home of Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane). There’s a shrine in the corner of the room dedicated to their dead son, slaughtered in combat. They guzzle pills for ill-defined, undetectable illnesses. Beau is infantilised to the point that the couple’s jealous daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers), becomes convinced he’s about to be adopted into the family. And so he flees, deep into the forest, where he finds a troupe of self-identifying orphans who perform a play seemingly about Beau’s own lost happiness – the pretty, storybook scenes are given animated backdrops by Chilean artists Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña.

Finally, he reaches his mother’s house. Only then do we come to understand that this odyssey of his is really a delusion. Beau isn’t trying to come back home. He’s trying to outrun the answer to a question posed, in the film’s opening minutes, by his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson): does he sometimes wish that his mother was dead? To say “yes” would blow his entire sense of self out of the water. Does his mother really offer love or suffocation? Nurturing or control? Phoenix’s performance, a masterclass in disassociation, lets Beau shrink down and nearly disappear into his own sickliness.

Beau Is Afraid is an Oedipal farce hysterically outsized in its execution – Mother is played by Patti LuPone, who could probably incinerate someone with a single look, and there’s a creature in the attic who serves as the film’s ultimate punchline. But its immersive psychology is also so effective that it may take until after the film has ended for the audience to start questioning its protagonist. Was it really all Mommy’s fault? Or was Mommy just the easiest one to blame?

Dir: Ari Aster. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Parker Posey. 15, 179 minutes.

‘Beau Is Afraid’ is in cinemas from 19 April