Nathan Lane, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Ryan in Beau Is Afraid.

After the artistic-horror triumphs of Hereditary and Midsommar, writer-director Ari Aster goes completely nuts with Beau Is Afraid, a film that really defies description—although I shall try, for that is my job, or so they tell me.

It is a horror-comedy of sorts, but the laughs are far from carefree. Much of it is basically a POV anxiety freakout, with some softer and, at times, animated passages to mellow out certain parts. But mostly, it’s a completely crazy cinematic exercise, three hours long, that will impress those who appreciate a good puzzler of a film. And by puzzler, I mean David Lynch would watch this movie and say, “Hey, what the flying fuck was that?”

Joaquin Phoenix stars as the title character, an anxiety-ridden New York City resident who is plagued with severe mommy issues. A trip to see his mother goes awry in ways that cinema has never truly depicted before, as Beau’s attempts to visit are hindered by meds gone very wrong. The world around him becomes nightmarishly amplified.

His inner-city apartment, which is already hellish by any standard, is seen through his troubled, medicated eyes as something satanic. People are getting their eyes gouged out at the building entrance; there’s a naked serial killer trying to stab everybody; the place is riddled with brown recluse spiders; and criminals parade into his place when he leaves the door open. Beau has some major, major issues.

When that trip to see mom (Patti LuPone) becomes necessary, he is, at first, delayed by an accident that has him confined to the home of Roger and Grace (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan), a strangely optimistic and happy couple with a raging teen daughter (Kylie Rogers) and a PTSD-suffering house guest (Denis Ménochet). Are they keeping Beau prisoner? Are they trying to help him? Your guess is as good as any.

At three hours, the film has plenty of room for embellishment and flourishes, including an animated sequence in which Beau fantasizes about a different track for his life. Everything in this movie is beautifully shot and executed—and insane. Truly insane.

As for Beau’s issues, his state of anxiety is the one that is most captivating and provides the film’s best moments, especially early on. The mommy issues fueling that anxiety remind a bit of Psycho, or Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, in which the protagonist literally got sucked back into the womb.

This is one of those movies that I will rewatch someday, and either I will think it was even better than I first thought, or I was an idiot for praising it. But praise it, I shall; I love a movie that challenges and perplexes, something Beau Is Afraid does for its entire running time.

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