Before my first viewing of “Beau Is Afraid,” Ari Aster was a director I respected far more for his film taste than his original films. Although I enjoyed “Hereditary” (2018) and “Midsommar” (2019), I could not help but think they were derivative, if not slight rip-offs of better films — (“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) by Roman Polanski and “The Wicker Man” (1973) by Robin Hardy, respectively). I was clearly alone in my thoughts, as Martin Scorsese and many others have labeled him as one of the great directors of his generation, constantly mentioning him alongside the Safdie brothers, Robert Eggers and very few others. I have been waiting a long time for Aster to prove his greatness to me. That time has come.

Courtesy of A24

“Beau Is Afraid” is not perfect — far from it — but it is beautifully deformed. A viewing experience akin to if Woody Allen’s Jewish anxiety was spoon-fed acid and injected straight into your eyeballs. A film that makes you wonder if Ingmar Bergman arose from the dead to make a slapstick comedy. A piece of art so personal that it felt like Aster might as well have just sat down and recorded himself giving an interview on his sexual anxieties. More importantly, it is uncompromisingly original. Yes, we can see obvious influences from “After Hours” (1985) by Scorsese, “Synecdoche, New York” (2008) by Charlie Kaufman and literally anything by Roy Andersson. However, this time, Aster takes his influences and makes them just small aspects of what is undoubtedly his very own film, and no one can take this away from him.

The movie paints the mentally ill Homeric odyssey of a failure named Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix), who just wants to go to his mother’s house. That simple premise somehow eloquently translates into a three-hour-long epic that ultimately sticks you in the tattered, moth-eaten shoes of a total loser. I wish it was longer.

Phoenix, at the top of his game, delicately and lovingly plays this total loser. In a lineup of powerful, at times excruciatingly, emotional films from “You Were Never Really Here” (2017) by Lynne Ramsay,The Master” (2012) by Paul Thomas Anderson and “Her” (2013) by Spike Jonze, I do not think we have ever seen Phoenix this vulnerable before. Even his Arthur Fleck from Todd Phillips’ “Joker” (2019) looks like a guy who has got it all figured out in comparison to Beau. A modern-day Leopold Bloom, Beau has the self-confidence of an adult who asks permission to use the bathroom, combined with the innocence, life experience and mindset of a toddler hopped up on Ritalin. These clash to form a pathetically loveable character who sees the world with endless wonder and fear. There is a soft fragility plastered onto Beau’s face that makes us feel like his life, at age 49, is just beginning.

The first half of “Beau Is Afraid” undoubtedly makes up the funniest dark comedy to come out in the past decade. You will laugh to stop yourself from uncomfortably crying. Never has New York, or whatever hellish landscape Beau inhabits, seemed more treacherous. Beau’s world, whether fact or a mental hallucination, is a glue trap that we watch him drown in. A nude serial killer roams the streets, teenagers play with assault rifles and streets are set aflame in front of indifferent cops, yet Beau is the only one considered crazy. However, from our vantage point as the audience, we have to side with Beau. While all at once perpetually suffering through a mental breakdown, mid-life existential crisis and panic attack, he is somehow the most normal person in the film. As the sequences get more bizarre, we find ourselves ultimately clinging to Beau for comfort. We see his life play out in such a discomforting emotional way that by the end we understand him better than ourselves.

In a behind-the-scenes trailer from A24, Aster describes the film as “the Jewish ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but [Beau’s] just going to his mom’s house.” Aster is not wrong. It has that epic feel of “The Lord of the Rings,” yet it simultaneously channels alienating nightmares like Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland” (2007) and David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” (1977) — a genre mash-up I never expected to work. And for many, it absolutely still does not. The audience’s response to this film has been hilarious. People have reacted to it the way someone might react to finding a rat in their food — but that might be the point. “Beau Is Afraid” is a film for the deranged; a film not meant for a Starbucks iced vanilla latte-consuming public. Aster clearly made this gorgeous atrocity for his own perverse pleasure. Those who love it, Scorsese, myself and the other ten weirdos, are just lucky that Aster shared it with us.

In my opinion, “Beau Is Afraid” will be the most divisive film of the year, and maybe of the decade. It might not earn back its budget, and people will undoubtedly hate it due to its shocking subject matter. But that wholeheartedly is an indictment on an ill-prepared audience … certainly not Aster, who proved originality and inflexible artistic vision still exist in the modern age of cinema. You do not have to love or even like the film, but if you do not give it a chance — if you do not at the very least admire its bold, courageous effort — then Beau is not afraid: You are.

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Liam Sherman is from Los Angeles, California, majoring in film studies and business. Some might see his endless consumption of movies, music and '90s sitcoms as typical procrastination, but he sees it as research... his family doesn’t. When he isn’t doing “research,” Liam works on his screenplays while enjoying a nice cup of tea.