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BEAU IS AFRAID (2023) review

April 24, 2023


written by: Ari Aster
produced by: Ari Aster and Lars Knudsen
directed by: Ari Aster
rated: R (for strong violent content, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language)
runtime: 197 min.
U.S. release date: April 14, 2023 (limited) & April 21, 2023 (wide)


So far, writer/director Ari Aster has made two features, 2018’s “Hereditary” and 2019’s “Midsommar”, and with both of those psychological horror films he’s become quite a polarizing filmmaker. Rarely would you find anyone on the fence regarding his work, but I guess I’m one of the few. His work has generally received critical praise, yet while I’ve found his directing quite impressive and the performances he’s able to get out of his leads quite powerful, his kitchen sink approach to his screenplays often result in a heavy-handed third act, leaving me quite frustrated. Surprisingly, I found myself responding differently to Aster’s latest, “Beau is Afraid” and maybe because from the start it’s his funniest film to date.

Granted, his previous endeavors are known mostly as horror flicks (and indeed there are certainly horrific and disturbing moments and situations), but there have also been comedic elements entwined in the drama Aster creates. “Beau is Afraid” is, by far, his most overtly comedic yet. It’s quite a bonkers albeit meandering three-hour ride through the specific lens of a lead character that is plagued by extreme anxiety, trauma, and guilt from his past and present. It’s one exhaustive therapy session that is the most ambitious and expensive collaboration between Aster and A24 (the American independent studio riding high after a Best Picture win at last month’s Oscars) and certainly the filmmakers most creative and imaginative to date.



As the film opens, alarming cries and shouts can be heard amid indecipherable and disorienting images. Then it becomes clear we’re witnessing the difficult birth of our titular character. The adults in the delivery room are concerned that the baby is quiet and not moving. A slap on the butt alarms the baby and he understandably can be heard crying. This may very well be when Beau began his journey of chronic terror, paralyzing self-doubt and anxiety. Life has hit him hard right from the onset and the world around him hasn’t really let up since.

When we catch up with Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix), he’s a frumpy, middle-aged, pill-popping loser living in a decrepit apartment by himself in a crime-riddled urban neighborhood where the sounds of chaos out his window match the depraved insanity occurring on the street below. The local news is reporting on a guy known as Birthday Boy Stab Man (Bradley Fisher), a naked knife-wielding assailant that has apparently killed dozens, yet such a character seems to blend in with all the unstable characters that meander in the street. It’s so volatile where he lives that he has to literally run to his apartment for fear of either getting accosted by a crazy person or some psycho following him into the building. Inside his building things aren’t any better: the elevator barely operates, anyone who works there is either dismissive or emits guttural utterances, and then there’s the unseen neighbor down the hallway who accuses Beau of making an insane amount of noise (when all he’s trying to do is get some sleep himself).

The interaction with his neighbor that keeps him up all night is happening the day before he’s supposed to get on a plane and fly out to see his mother, Mona Wasserman (Patti LuPone), a successful businesswoman, for the anniversary of his father’s death. When he sleeps through his alarm, Beau awakens in a frenzy, racing to pack and just as he goes back to grab some dental floss he turns around and suddenly realizes his suitcase that was at his apartment entrance and his keys that were in the door are gone. Panicked and defeated, Beau makes a call to his mother to let her know of his situation and she passive-aggressively dismisses him in what we gather is one of many such situations in his life where his manipulative mother makes him feel smaller than small.



Is it fair to say the source of Beau’s problems stem from his relationship with his mother? Since we’re seeing all this from his point of view, it’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s all in his head and this traumatic reality is self-created, but what if it isn’t? At just about every turn there’s something to be fearful of or second guess himself about. It’s not like he’s not trying to overcome the crippling anxieties that plague him. He sees a therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) who prescribes him an experimental drug in hopes of regulating his anxiety with the warning that it absolutely must be taken with water. Since those directions are emphasized, later on Beau will discover that there’s no running water in the building.

When he makes a desperate run to the convenient mart across the street for a bottle of water, he has to leave the front door propped open with a phone book, quickly maneuvering through the sea of madness that feels like a war zone. Again, is this his really happening or is this just what his environment feels like for Beau? Either way, it’s tangibly intense and traumatic. In a matter of minutes things take a turn for the worst, as Beau is locked out and a horde of street cretins make their way into his building and trash his apartment while Beau helplessly observes from the fire escape next to his window.

What else can possibly happen? The next morning Beau tries to follow-up with his mother as he sits in his trashed apartment and is told by a UPS delivery driver (a fun cameo that is best left unrevealed) that his mother was found at her home dead in a ghastly manner. Gutted by this news, Beau goes from hysterical to catatonic and eventually tries to relax by taking a calming bath. But that doesn’t work out because there’s an intruder suspended in the ceiling above the bath tub. This results in a watery tussle between naked Beau and the intruder that finds him fleeing into the street below only to be hit by a truck.

He awakens in an unfamiliar bed at the home of the owners of the truck, who have taken him in and are helping him recuperate. They are Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane), a seemingly kind married couple who ensure Beau he can stay at their house while he rests, but they’re dealing with their own loss and insanity, like Jeeves (Denis Ménochet) a war veteran they also allowing to stay on their property (in a trailer in the backyard) and Julie (Kylie Rogers), their teenage daughter who’s annoyed that Beau was given her room.



It’s during this time that memories of his childhood become more vivid and frequent. One haunting recollection is a moment as a young boy where his mother (a younger version played by Zoe Lister-Jones) confronts him while he’s taking a bath. Another pivotal memory finds a teenage Beau (Armen Nahapetian, looking uncannily like Phoenix from 1986’s “Spacecamp”) vacationing with his mother on a cruise, where he meets Elaine (Julia Antonelli) and captivating girl his age, who’s everything the timid and shy Beau is not. Their friendship is a source of contention for both the children’s mothers, which is something Aster doesn’t really delve into since this all through the lens of Beau’s memories. The goodbyes between Beau and Emily are abrupt as he promises to find her one day. These moments have weighed heavily on Beau for sometime, developing a crippling amount of grief and longing that has affected him all his life.

The unintentional Hero’s Journey Beau finds himself on becomes one waking nightmare after another. He feels like a trapped observer to all the weird and chaotic situations (past and present) that occurs in his life. As the tormented and worried man finds himself getting into one wholly unbelievable situation after another, one has to wonder if this is all his mother’s implied doing or is it just cyclical traumatic experiences that seem to follow him everywhere?

There’s no straight answer to such a question, since so much of “Beau is Afraid” is determined by how you take it all in…and there’s quite a bit to taken in here. It’s as much an unsettling experience for the viewer as it is for Phoenx’s Beau.

I haven’t even touched on the part where Beau gets lost in the woods – figuratively and literally) – and encounters a Shakespearean-type theatre troupe who act out on scenes straight from Beau’s past and future. There’s a whole animation sequence (directed by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña of “The Wolf House”) during this gonzo part of his journey that help to express what he is seeing or hallucinating (it’s anyone’s guess really). Some images look like an expressionistic painting while others look like a diorama set come to life. The inclusion of animation would be a hard left turn for any other film, but at this point in the story anything goes and considering how the first act feels like a Spain Rodriquez comic come to life.

Arguably, what makes “Beau if Afraid” somewhat different and a little better than his previous two features is the tonal consistency of the feature. Like, “Hereditary” and “Midsommar”, Aster is interested in studying the the downward spiral of his lead character’s psyche. Those two films studied grief and loss, but then got in to heavy-handed territory with occultists that weighed the film down into hysterical moments that pulled this viewer out of the story. In “Beau is Afraid”, there’s no jarring moments because, well, everything is jarring. So, it’s not really much of a surprise to see a giant penis being brutally attached in an attic. That just seems like another compartment of Beau’s already crowded mind.

It may seem like I’ve described too much of “Beau is Afraid”, but to be honest so much of the film is indescribable. This is especially true for the third act. You just wind up sitting back and going for the ride in this surreal trip of fantasia, saying to yourself, “Oh, there’s Parker Posey!” and “Hey, that’s Richard Kind“, without arriving at any solutions for our sad sack character by the time his story ends.

Aster and Phoenix are a good pairing, as both are game for an “anything goes” look at Freudian dysfunction, nervous breakdowns and psychological deteriorations. Phoenix has displayed his chameleonic skills in the past and  is at home playing a disjointed, tormented character. Aster is keen to send him down a weird and wild path that’s certainly open for interpretation, some vague and some obvious. Although I laughed quite a bit and was quite impressed, I don’t know how soon I’ll be seeing it again, even though it clearly requires multiple viewings.



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