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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Beau Is Afraid"

Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid is a deranged, surrealistic, pitch-black comedy that’s scarier than anything in Hereditary or Midsommar. Those earlier films established Aster as the 21st-century king of visionary, bone-crunching horror, and this third feature is the sort of ambitious folly a director can only make after they’ve had tremendous success: It’s overstuffed, overindulgent, overcranked and overpopulated with ideas, and it unravels over a dizzying three hours.

Watching it is like being trapped inside someone else’s panic attack, or revisiting a supercut of every stressful dream you’ve ever had. And in its best moments, it’s kind of brilliant.

The Beau of the title is a meek, slouchy, soft-spoken man played by Joaquin Phoenix, and he is, in fact, afraid of just about everything. He probably has good reason to be: He lives in a city that is a tableau of crime and despair, and merely walking into his apartment building requires him to dodge gunshots, angry mobs and a naked man wielding a knife.

Beau learns that his mother has been in a freak accident. As he scrambles to get to her, the movie retreats into the past, leaps ahead to the future, drifts into memory and devolves into fantasy, reveling in puerile Freudian imagery, broad slapstick comedy and gore.

Beau Is Afraid swerves from one nightmare to another, never settling on its cerebral, shaggy-dog journey. Its detours include a seemingly virtuous suburban couple (Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane) with a dark secret; a traveling theater troupe whose work inspires Beau to reimagine his own life; a chance encounter with a girl from Beau’s past, played as an adult by Parker Posey; and confrontations between Beau and his mother (portrayed by Zoe Lister Jones and Patti LuPone) that are either reflections of trauma, manifestations of guilt, or merely feverish hallucinations.

Like David Lynch and Luis Buñuel, Aster is shrewd about capturing the experience of lucid dreaming — how memories, dissociative images and real-world anxieties intermingle so that they’re indistinguishable from one another. Aster’s index of nightmare scenarios range from everyday indignities to genuine fears. Your credit card is declined. There’s a spider in your house. Your new medication has odd side effects. You’re the victim of random violence.

We’re trapped in Beau’s head for 178 minutes as he flips through his rolodex of neuroses: childhood embarrassment, his crippling fear and latent hatred of women, unresolved issues with his mother, sexual dysfunction, his suspicion that his therapist isn’t actually listening to him (and he’s probably right). You’re falling through one man’s id and hitting every branch on the way down.

Certain passages in Beau Is Afraid are silly and sophomoric. Others feel like they’re spinning their wheels. It is, occasionally, in extremely bad taste. It is both uncomfortably intimate and ludicrously vast. It’s the sort of movie that’s going to inspire dissections and deconstructions that suss out What It All Means.

But I’m less interested in the metaphorical guts of the movie than the aggressive, heedless energy with which Aster spills them across the screen. As Beau Is Afraid mutated in front of me, as I was by turns perplexed and horrified and amused and even moved by the sheer heft of its own gargantuan vision, I came to love it… in a certain way. It’s either a deeply stupid movie or a deeply profound one. Or maybe it’s both, because why should those things be mutually exclusive? A movie like this is thrilling to watch because it is so completely itself. Whether you like it or not.

Nathan Weinbender is one of the film critics heard on Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101,” Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.