Beau Is Afraid
Ari Aster brings a new guilt-dripping nightmare to the screen, and the darkest of comedies as well, with help from a game Joaquin Phoenix.
April 20, 2023
Beau is afraid. Beau is anxious. Beau is alone. Beau is alive. Any of these three-word sentences would make a fitting name for Ari Aster's third feature, which sees its titular middle-aged figure not just worry about anything and everything, but watch his fears come true, concerns amplify and alienation grow — and then some. And, in the Hereditary and Midsommar filmmaker's reliably dread-inducing hands, no matter whether Beau (Joaquin Phoenix, C'mon C'mon) is wallowing in his apartment solo, being welcomed into someone else's family or stumbling upon a travelling theatre troupe in the woods, he knows that he's truly on his own in this strange, sad, surreal and savage world, too. More than that, he's well-aware that this is what life is inescapably like for all of us, regardless of how routine, chaotic or grand our individual journeys from emerging out of our mother's womb to sinking into death's eternal waters happen to prove.
Aster has opted for Beau Is Afraid as a moniker, with this horror-meets-tragicomedy mind-bender a filmic ode to existential alarm — and, more than that, a picture that turns catastrophising into a feature. Psychiatrists will have a field day; however, experiencing the latest in the writer/director's growing line of guilt-dripping celluloid nightmares, so should viewers in general. Even with Chilean The Wolf House helmers Cristóbal León and Joaquin Cosiña lending their help to the three-hour movie's midsection, where animation adds another dreamlike dimension to a picture book-style play within an already fantastical-leaning flick frequently running on dream logic, Aster embraces his favourite deranged terrain again. He makes bold choices, doesn't think twice about challenging himself and his audience, elicits a stunning lead performance and dances with retina-searing imagery, all while pondering inherited trauma, the emotional ties that bind and the malevolence that comes with dependence.
Death, the bonds of blood, life's onslaught of damage, long-kept secrets, wild and weird groups, odd rituals, unnerving altercations: yes, they're all present and accounted for in Beau Is Afraid as well; yes, this is unshakeably and unmistakably an Aster joint. When he slides into suburbia in the second act, he also gets as Lynchian as he ever has — that Beau Is Afraid springs from a ravenous mind fed a diet of Eraserhead, Twin Peaks and Inland Empire isn't in doubt long before Mariah Carey's earworm 'Always Be My Baby' scores a Blue Velvet-esque spin. Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa, Darren Aronofsky's mother!, Richard Kelly's Southland Tales: they're equally among this movie's melange of peers, ambitious and impressive company that offers a litmus test for viewers. Swimming through someone else's mindscape is never easy, after all, and doesn't Aster love sharing that feeling.
Beau Wassermann is an average Joe with a rundown flat in a dilapidated neighbourhood, his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Causeway) on speed dial, and O'Loha frozen dinners — an incredulous mix of Hawaiian and Irish cuisines — for sustenance. He's also the son of a wealthy and controlling businesswoman, Mona (played by American Horror Story's Patti LuPone, plus The Craft: Legacy director Zoe Lister-Jones in flashbacks), another mainstay on his call list (Moviefone, the US number for obtaining cinema session information that's been defunct since 2014, is another). And, he's wracked with stress whenever he leaves his house, which doesn't seem that far-fetched given there's a nude killer dubbed 'Birthday Boy Stab Man' by the news on the loose. That said, after Beau Is Afraid shows its namesake's birth from his perspective, obligatory slap on the rear and all, then meets him nearing 50 and nervous about a trip home, he's just fretful all the time anyway.
Thanks to an escalating series of unfortunate events — another string of words that could've doubled as Beau Is Afraid's title; Disappointment Blvd was the actual original moniker — the basis for that apprehension is similarly swiftly apparent. From the tiniest minutiae to the biggest change, Beau's existence keeps getting worse, then bleaker still, then even more grim and hopeless. He's prescribed anti-anxiety pills that he's told absolutely must be taken with water, but doesn't have any and his building's supply is shut off. When he sprints to the convenience store across the road, everyone on his crime-riddled street slips into his apartment and trashes it. Aster begins Beau's malaise in the everyday, but becomes hellish quickly, a pattern constantly repeated when he's hit by a van and taken in by the married Grace and Roger (Only Murders in the Building co-stars Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane), watches that aforementioned theatre production, reflects upon his time as a teenager (Armen Nahapetian, NCIS) on a cruise holiday falling for his first crush (Julia Antonelli, Outer Banks) and seeks answers about his father.
In only his second on-screen role since winning an Oscar for Joker, Phoenix plays Beau with deeply internalised sorrow, so much so that spying his shoulders do anything but slump in the character's uniform of pyjamas seems like the most fanciful thing that could happen — and this is a movie overflowing with eccentric, imaginative and absurd touches. It's a fascinating performance, both vulnerable and primal at once, as situations exceeding Beau's foulest terrors keep bubbling. Crucially, whether Beau Is Afraid is in Freudian and Oedipal mode, or bringing Misery or Station Eleven or Lord of the Rings to mind in Aster's unceasingly distinctive way, or having its central figure wrestle naked in the bath, Phoenix is committed to the ride and to being the everyman. He's in an often bitingly funny black comedy as much as he's in a horror flick, and he's both game and empathetic as Beau overtly endeavours yet struggles to keep it together. Ideally, no one watching is discovering intruders perched above their baths and monsters in attics, but they'll always understand Beau's panic, shame, dismay and humiliation.
Of course, when Aster gets amusing, it's in largely while getting so distressing that you really can only laugh, as Beau's mushrooming plight forever is. If every possible development in your life is always the most miserable, what else are you meant to do? That's Beau Is Afraid in a smart, dark, cerebral, gut-punching, hope-crushing, relatable, hilarious and horrific nutshell. Aster packs in humour wherever he can, though, demanding the utmost attention to his returning Hereditary and Midsommar cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski's purposefully disorienting frames for slapstick silliness, dick jokes and brief flashes of background wordplay (Asstral Projection and Erection Injection are the names of the peepshows next to Beau's building, for instance). Beau is afraid of it all, and teeming with anxiety over it. He's alone in it all, but that's what being alive is. It'd be the film's biggest surprise if Aster wasn't chuckling — and having the ultimate fever dream.
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