Ari Aster? Ari Aster is The Joker.
In the piss-elegant and offhandedly offensive “Beau Is Afraid,” nothing less than excess will do. Aster’s madly, teemingly ambitious third feature, after “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” is unabashedly Freud for thought, a full-bore, slow-tilt freakout, an interior mom-a-logue that advances as ponderous fable in distinct chunks, attenuated, animated, extenuated, exsanguinated.
Aster is tending to his strain of art-house gloss, of elegant yet keening surfaces, of punishing beauty. But in “Beau,” shit is smeared and the body wounded, gashed, smashed and slashed. (Heads are vulnerable things.) A gut ripped into a bloody vagina shape all but winks, but unlike in, say, David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” there is no further implication. The body is mute.
Joaquin Phoenix is Beau Wasserman, a pharma-fed husk with only the most primal of backstory, who is to visit his mother in a few hours, flying from his apocryphal city of Corrina, Corrina, to the family home in Wasserton. She hectors, she demands. He is a protagonist without agency who is acted upon and learns nothing: even distant, mom Mona pins him. Beau is the man who would stop you, clasping your lapels, to catalog his pocket lint: retailing his day as assemblage of grudges and fears and collated portents. His therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) grins knowingly. Their moments suggest Beau’s been on medicated cycles for eons, and he’ll soon pop another script for an experimental pill called “Zypnotycril.” (Beau also believes he cannot have sex; his mother convinced him that his father and his father’s father ejaculated just the once to create the next generation—they came and they went.)
An early draft, A24’s press notes relate, “basically came about as an exercise in free-writing, and while Aster now recognizes many literary influences—the Greeks, Borges, Virgil, Kafka, Sterne, Cervantes, Tennessee Williams—the script functioned for a long time as a receptacle for ideas that struck him as belonging to this particular world over the course of years. ”
The first half hour is exquisitely dank and cacophonous, bursting with cartoon vivacity, a dissonant city symphony of menace and mayhem that’s the best emulation of the classic “usual gang of idiots” pack-the-frame style of MAD magazine since David Zucker’s “Naked Gun,” but with more jeopardy than jokes, literal eye-gouging rather than the legendary comic’s metaphorical “eyeball kicks.” Talk about “Oedipus Yecccchhh!,” to use MAD-made parlance.
Beau’s walk-up is both dream and nightmare of a 1980s-style slumlord bargain, a woebegone rundown hovel of a place, but with so much space, such high ceilings, swaddled in catastrophic hues, over a sex shop neon-signed as Ejectus Erectus. (Noted attractions include the “Pussy Frog Whistle.”) Beau’s filthy hallway is discouragingly spray-graffitied with slogans like the refrain “HAIL SATAN / SHOOT DOPE / KILL CHILDREN / FUCK THE POPE.”
There are spiders. And lots of screaming and gunfire in this part of town! Should I mention the brown recluse spiders? And the literally dick-swinging side-stabber?
Below, the streets teem with shouty carnage; upstairs, by night and day, a neighbor leaves nonsensical threatening notes; Beau’s keys disappear and his bathtub overflows. Beau Wasserman: there is so much water in this man’s life, tubs filling and overfilling again and again; a life soaked, detonated, denied, fathomless and amniotic. Wasserman. Water man. Still a water boy carrying for his mother.
A UPS delivery man calls from the family manse: your mother was “decapitated and her head vaporized by a falling chandelier.” Could it be true? Mother! Blood!
In his last moments, Beau will retreat to shimmering dark of the womb’s deep from which he emerged at first light, through an ample cave piloting a skiff after water: on black, star-dappled water by gorgeous music, toward an amphitheater where Richard Kind is a sinister barker who partakes freely of Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life.”
But not yet! There is still two-and-a-half hours of water torture to come. The protracted squirm-filled absurdist hootenanny through a succession of stylistically varied pageants has only just begun. We still have our first meetings with the stab wound that’s come undone, like a cloth mouth or a scooped-out eye socket or that elongated vagina.
Waking to a recovery idyl lasts seconds before going relentlessly awry in drug-dosed suburbia—Nathan Lane, buddy!—is then followed by an animated passage of 3-D animation like paper arts and performance art in tandem. It rolls out as a journey that could have been painted by Thomas Hart Benton, that begins at a play before an audience of hippies in a forest and then reveals dioramas, cycloramas and stage panoramas distilling the narrative of a never-lived life, leveled by a synthesized female voice, oh man and superman, “until your life shrinks into the dreams of a ghost.”
Then when we meet Mom, she’s Patti LuPone, with a bite on every sibilant, serving up a “helicopter-like performance,” as Manny Farber identified of Angela Lansbury in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Her foul ordure rules.
But somehow I prefer the short, sharp spunk of random lines like “You have a crazy hard-on” and “You just blasted through that bag!” The surgical precision of a few lines’ shock—”I’m giving him his medicine, so if you hear him screaming, he’s just asleep”—are brilliant slashes that choke their own laughter. (Someone’s “fucking on a pile of her slut-money in Aruba” but “You get the tri-tip.”)
“Beau Is Afraid” is also a cineaste’s indulgence: There’s a tincture of “The Truman Show”; the chill deadpan of Roy Andersson; the bliss-out of Godard’s solid fields of primary colors; children’s faces framed in tight close up from under viscous water as in Tarkovsky; Charlie Kaufman’s cloacal decors. Other citations, prompted by Aster’s carte blanche program of movies he programmed at Film at Lincoln Center: The insensate onslaught of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”; the virgin sprinting of Jirí Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains”; the Freudian familial mishaps of Guy Maddin’s “Cowards Bend the Knee”; the garish termite grandeur of Nicholas Ray’s “Johnny Guitar”; Tsai Ming-liang’s metaphor-drenched daily life of “The River”; Jacques Tati’s intensely designed cityscape, “Playtime”; Powell-Pressburger’s under-anesthesia delirium of lost love, “A Matter Of Life And Death”; and Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life,” the climax of which Aster cops entire. Noted!
(Me, I’m fascinated by how Beau at first resembles Phoenix’s “C’mon C’mon” collaborator, Mike Mills, but, increasingly distressed, becomes with his strand-distressed pate and hair remnants to his shoulder, a ringer for septuagenarian visionary Terrence Malick.)
The experience, both during and in the hours after witnessing the three-hour panic attack, is more dream than fantasy: how are we Beau? How is Beau Ari?
None of these questions could persist without producer Len Blavatnik, whose Access Industries produced the reportedly $35 million enterprise, the highest budget in A24’s eleven-year history. The net worth of Sir Leonard Valentinovich Blavatnik, described by Wikipedia as “a Ukrainian-born American-British business magnate and philanthropist,” is estimated at $35 billion. The vast entertainment holdings of Blavatnik’s company include Warner Music Group and investments in “Hamilton,” “Moulin Rouge” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” as well as “a co-financing deal with Warner Bros. on films including ‘Wonder Woman,’ ‘It,’ ‘Gravity,’ ‘Birdman,’ ‘Godzilla,’ ‘Mad Max: Fury Road,’ ‘Dunkirk’ and seventy-six other major motion pictures.”
As a “major motion picture” this is personal but also a fiscal provocation: “Beau” is gargantuan folly—and I speak as an admirer of a huge chunk of the fortune-racketing follies of a century of cinema—the sort that could only have been ventured by an immensely wealthy producer or patron. This is one of the boldest categories of dreams the movie industry was made for: the expression of singular visions with the backing of titanic finance.
Does the money even matter? Does the reaction matter of audiences who know “The Joker” matters at the hundreds or even thousands of screens it will play on, for at least this weekend?
“Beau Is Afraid” is not the contained, earthy, earthly meltdown of Darren Aronofsky’s claustrophobic marvel, “Mother!,” nor an art-house “Heaven’s Gate.” Access is also not the latter-day Transamerica, the conglomerate ravaged by Michael Cimino’s years-long disbursements.
The Access logo seen at the start for the film has a movable crossbar on the “A,” which droops like a floodgate about to open, never to be closed again, before the film’s main title.
“Beau Is Afraid” opens Friday, April 21 at an awful lot of theaters. I saw it in IMAX.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.