The Pitch: Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), simply put, has wasted his life. A timid, balding middle-aged man, he ekes out a meek existence in a crowded apartment in New York City, terrified of the mobs of junkies and murderers racing through the streets like a zombie horde. But his greatest fear, it seems, is the impending prospect of visiting his mother in upstate New York, despite the best efforts of his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who points out (apropos of nothing) that thoughts of killing his mother are “not uncommon.”
And, in the way that feels endemic to Beau’s life, he soon gets a traumatic but all-too-enticing reason to duck out of his visit: After an unexpected theft derails his plans, he asks his mother, over the phone, “What do you think I should do?”
“…It’s fine,” she responds. (Narrator: It wasn’t fine.)
For Mommy gets the last laugh — Beau gets a call the very next day that she’s dead, and he’s got to get there for the funeral as soon as possible. After all, it’s her express wish that she not be buried without Beau physically present. As per usual for Beau’s life (or at least the highly subjective glimpse Aster gives us), such a simple journey takes him on a nightmarish odyssey that will test the limits of his mind, his soul, and — most of all — his nerves.
Mommy Issues: A24 marquee name Ari Aster is usually synonymous with the hallmarks of what’s often referred to (sometimes derisively) as “A24 horror” — long, contemplative mood pieces that unveil their existential horrors through crisp framing and understated performances from A-list actors classing up the kind of stories that used to be comfortable under the lens of schlock. Beau Is Afraid is ostensibly Aster’s “comedy,” though it’s tinged with the same phantasmagoria as his previous efforts: Here, he’s stepping pretty visibly into Charlie Kaufman territory, using the language of cinema to externalize his deep-seated anxieties about his mother, his life, and every anxiety he’s ever had.
Speaking of which, Phoenix’s Beau is a tangled ball of them, as if “neurosis” were molded into clay and given life like a golem. The man is no stranger to playing closed-off weirdos; hell, he just won an Oscar a few years back for turning the Clown Prince of Crime into one. But he, with his noticeable paunch, shock of thinning white hair, and slack-jawed expression, spends the entire film constantly searching for solid emotional ground and finding nothing.
Beau’s is a tragic, pathetic existence: his sin is sloth, laziness, fear — or, as Henderson’s therapist jots down in his notebook, “guilty.” It’s that guilt, cultivated over years of what seems like overwhelming abuse by his mother (played impeccably by Zoe Lister-Jones in flashbacks to a younger Beau, and Patti Lupone in a late-film appearance that must be seen to be believed), that keeps him a docile, confused man who’s done nothing with his life. Phoenix’s performance is a tightly-coiled panic attack, one that embraces his character’s passivity and makes it compelling nonetheless.