Though it's early, 2023 is unlikely to see a widely released film as divisive as Beau Is Afraid. It has no desire to be liked as it drags us along the journey of a troubled man desperately trying to visit his mother. Just as there are films that get labeled as crowd-pleasers, this one is built to alienate, and it does so in spectacular fashion.

Over its nearly three-hour runtime, writer-director Ari Aster ensures that you feel every single minute as he creates an unrelenting panic attack from which there is no escape. This feel-bad movie is also sharply witty before taking on a bleakly depressing tone as the ending shifts into something more maddeningly melancholic. It is a darkly absurdist cinematic farce where, amidst quite a lot of dicking around, the joke is really on all of us. Not just as an audience, but as people who are trying to make sense of this funny thing we call life. 

There’s a good chance that most people seeing Beau will be familiar with Aster's previous feature-length films, 2018’s Hereditary and 2019’s Midsommar, but it actually shares more of the madcap sensibility of his shorts. There is a humorously high probability that many will be caught off guard by the film’s goofiness.

Accompanying the titular Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) on his mission to see his mother one final time after she recently died in a horrible accident that shows Aster still loves him some head trauma, Beau Is Afraid is less a straightforward horror film than it is an experience defined by existential terror. Comparisons have been made to the work of Charlie Kaufman, with one sequence lightly playing around with ideas he explored in Synecdoche, New York, but that is far too simplistic. Beau Is Afraid is not as assured and it often seems like Aster isn’t certain about what to do next, but that is precisely the point. The film thrives on the uncertainty facing a character who just can’t seem to catch a break. If anything, it has a greater cinematic kinship with Tom Green's Freddy Got Fingered, a comparison that is very much meant as a compliment.

The film takes its sweet time with teasing this out, spending much of its beginning with Beau either confined to his apartment or nervously in its proximity that is like a hellscape of his own fears happening all at once. The elevator painfully grinds open with sparks flying, an unseen neighbor repeatedly slides him notes under his door at all hours telling him to stop playing music he isn't actually playing, and his keys suddenly go missing when he tries to depart for the airport. There is even a character known as Birthday Boy Stab Man, played by a familiar face from Aster’s short C'est La Vie, who does exactly what his name implies. After Beau, sans clothes, is mistaken for this man by a cop in a ridiculous scene, he runs away in a panic only to be hit by a vehicle and launched through the air. 

When he awakens in the home of Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane) is where the film properly begins. The two incessantly dote and drug Beau, treating him like their deceased son who died in war though is now memorialized in a series of recurring gags that grow increasingly unhinged. This is as silly as it is suffocating, but that is the idea—there is a growing sense these people aren’t to be trusted. The progression of the plot, which plays out most like a deconstruction of the hero’s journey, matters far less than the anxieties it taps into, which begin to reach a fever pitch. When Beau escapes into the woods in the hopes of making it to his mother’s alone, there is no salvation to be found. As foretold in security camera footage he is able to eerily fast forward, it is only chaos and no catharsis. 

While not as visually striking or unsettling as Midsommar, there is still something to Beau Is Afraid. It is rather straightforward, as many moments become far too spelled out when ambiguity would have better served the story, but that doesn’t make its revelations any less impactful. For every moment where the film threatens to grow repetitive, there is always a follow-up scene that hits us with something unexpected. Even a phone call about the initial tragedy, or the moment where Beau realizes he may not be doomed after all, are turned into glorious punchlines. It is the type of film that comes at its audience to ensure you’re always off balance, throwing in formal and narrative misdirects that all keep coming back to a deep sense of dread about life itself. Beau toes dangerously close to bland misanthropy, then always pulls us back right when we’re at the brink. 

When all the noise fades, with a concluding acknowledgment of how this has all been a performance for an ambivalent audience witnessing what borders on self-flagellation if you consider Beau to be a stand-in for Aster, the near silence lays bare how there was always going to be tragedy to close out this tragicomedy. For a film full of almost gleeful mirth at the macabre aspects of its distinct experience, there is no escaping the looming prospect that we may all be drowned in life’s miserable undercurrents. Rather than feel too much like an unloading of baggage, or, worse, fall into being tiresome cinematic therapy that is overly impressed with itself, Aster instead lets the credits roll over one final joke of a shot. While it leaves us adrift, such an uncompromising experience would demand nothing less.

Beau Is Afraid opens Thurs April 20 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.