Ari Aster, the current darling of highbrow horror, has created an audacious and inherently polarizing tragicomic odyssey about the relationship between Jewish men and their mothers. Anxiety is a constant theme in “Beau Is Afraid.” As the title suggests, Joaquin Phoenix’s eponymous Beau is afraid of everyone and everything around him. And why wouldn’t he be? The version of New York he lives in is a chaotic hellscape ridden with roaming gangs, knife- wielding maniacs and venomous spiders. Unfortunately, Beau’s mother unexpectedly dies and he sets off on a perilous journey to her memorial.
Having made a name for himself with his debut “Hereditary,” which became something of an instant classic in horror, and his unsettling follow up “Midsommar,” Aster has primed fans for a challenging and emotionally scathing work. But with its languishingly paced three-hour running time and regular divergence into seemingly inconsequential narrative cul-de-sacs, “Beau Is Afraid” may be too great of a leap to make for even the most devout Aster fans. As he always is, Phoenix is excellent in the film’s center, navigating the story’s shifting tones and landing the dry comedic beats with ease. Phoenix is rarely out of frame through the duration of the lengthy film, but he is always doing something interesting and engaging. It is yet another showcase for why he is among the best actors working over the last 20-plus years.