Beau is scheduled to leave the next day to visit his mother, a fraught proposition that leads to the shrink wondering aloud whether Beau has ever harbored matricidal fantasies; within a few moments, he’s prescribing Beau a “cool new drug” that is sure to alleviate his worst phobias and projections.
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t! After this forebodingly ironic setup, “Beau Is Afraid” sends its sad-sack protagonist on an increasingly deranged journey through what is either a pitiless, reality-adjacent American landscape or his own inner terrors. Battered, bruised, savagely whipped into a creature of almost fetal passivity, Phoenix’s Beau is far from ideal: Part Dante, part Dorothy, he’s a man desperately trying to find a path through the darkling wood of his own psychic wounds. There are times when the quest confronts Beau with moments of startling beauty and, quite literally, grace. For the most part, however, his simple goal to go home is thwarted with obstacles that grow more gruesome and traumatically triggering with each halting step.
For the past few years, Aster has gained a cult following for his exacting, imaginatively audacious world-building. Those gifts are on prodigious display in “Beau Is Afraid,” which is divided into chapters that roughly coincide with blackouts Beau suffers as a result of violence or his own addled state. The film’s most bravura — and shockingly disturbing — sequence finds Beau at home in an unnamed city, where he lives in a squalid apartment in a sleazy, crime-infested red-light district. Dodging miscreants and the occasional dead body to get into his derelict building, Beau initially seems to be an avatar for contemporary disaffection, a quintessential middle-aged White guy besieged by the free-floating aggression and moral decay of his times.
But Aster has something far more personal and, frankly, less interesting in mind for his title character: As Beau sets off to make good on his promise to visit his mother, Mona (played as a younger woman by Zoe Lister-Jones, then by a terrifying Patti LuPone), the roots of his distress come into clearer, if still somewhat hazy, focus. He encounters an almost perversely helpful suburban couple named Roger and Grace (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan), who insist that he stay in the bedroom of their angry teenage daughter (a superbly bristling Kylie Rogers); he crosses paths with an ethereal wood sprite (Hayley Squires), who turns out to be a member of a hilariously pseudo-experimental theater troupe; he revisits his boundary-challenged boyhood with his single mother, his first kiss with a headstrong girl (Julia Antonelli) and his grating suspicions about his father’s death.
At one point, Aster stages a magnificent play within a play within a play that recalls the soaring counterfactuals of “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “25th Hour,” a gorgeously designed and executed fantasy of what might have been that plays like a wish fulfillment allegory conceived by Grant Wood on psilocybin. (References abound in “Beau Is Afraid,” including to “The Truman Show” and the oeuvre of Charlie Kaufman, all of which still reign supreme in terms of genuine insight and invention.)
It’s all very trippy, and sometimes morbidly funny, studded with fan-friendly gashes of body horror, most often by way of Beau’s own angry, suppurating wounds. By the time Beau reaches his maybe-final destination, he can barely form full sentences. Phoenix’s performance — already a master class in cowering passivity — becomes mumblingly incoherent and inert. In its final half-hour, when the mind-and-body blows of “Beau Is Afraid” should be earned (if not explained), Aster reveals the film’s banal foundations: He’s made a film that’s so far up its own Aster-ness that it has reached the farthest — and ugliest — limits of a psyche consumed by good old Oedipal guilt and misogynistic rage.
That rage lies at the heart of LuPone’s character, a Jewish matriarch so monstrously controlling that she has made a profession of it. (God may see our abominations, as a Gatsby-esque wall sign declares early in “Beau Is Afraid,” but a mother knows.) It also animates the movie’s cruelest passage, when a character played by Parker Posey — who interjects lovely, much-needed moments of tenderness, not to mention a fabulous Mariah Carey joke, into the dour proceedings — meets an ignominious and crudely choreographed fate.
Technically, “Beau Is Afraid” runs 179 minutes, but let’s call it three hours for the extra minute it will take for viewers to absorb the depravity, suffering, sophomoric absurdity and nastiness they’ve just been asked to process. The sad truth is that, for all his ambition, cinematic prowess and hyper-confessional candor, Aster doesn’t stick the landing. Instead, he’s made a movie about unresolved ambivalence that itself goes confoundingly unresolved. What’s more, he’s added to an already exhausted canon without bringing much of anything new to the shelf. Instead of breaking something open, and for all its self-conscious daring, “Beau Is Afraid” stays in a relatively safe lane as one more Portnoy-esque plaint about Mom’s inhumanity to man.
R. Area theaters. Contains strong violence, sexual material, graphic nudity, drug use and crude language. 179 minutes.