Beau Wasserman is afraid. He’s afraid of a lot of things, but mostly he’s afraid of going back to his childhood home. He’s grown up without a father, and his mother told him he died in the instant Beau was conceived, due to a heart murmur caused by orgasm which is supposed to run in the family (or at least according to his mother). His mother, Mona, is a successful and wealthy businesswoman, while Beau has grown up to become an extremely anxious person living in the crime-ridden Skid Row. He’s prepared for a flight in order to visit his mother for the anniversary of his father’s death, but his apartment keys and luggage are stolen and all hell breaks lose, his home is invaded by a bunch of homeless people for the night, and of course he misses his flight. How does his mother take the news about that? Well, I guess you can imagine. Later, he tries to call his mother again, only to get a UPS driver on the line telling him that he found his mother decapitated after a chandelier fell on her head. Beau, not far from having a complete mental breakdown at this point, ends up taking a bath in order to prepare himself for a final travel to his mother’s place in time for the funeral, but ends up getting in a violent confrontation with an intruder, runs out in the street naked and tries to get help from a police officer. That goes as well as you can imagine. After trying to get away from the incompetent police officer threatening to shoot him, he gets hit by a food truck, and then his anxiety-ridden journey in order to reach his mother’s funeral has just begun.
Beau Is Afraid is a surrealistic comedy drama with some horror elements, written and directed by Ari Aster. Aster, most known for his directorial debut hit Hereditary and his other horror film Midsommar, actually intended to have Beau Is Afraid as his directorial debut, with a 2011 short entitled Beau serving as the basis for this movie.. Well…for his career’s sake, it was probably best he didn’t and went for making Hereditary first, because Beau Is Afraid was a major box office bomb, despite receiving rather positive reviews from critics. It had a budget of $35 million (making it A24’s most expensive film) while only grossing $11 million. The problem with this movie is that its three hours of arthouse tragicomedy surrealism is certainly not for everyone, and it’s a movie where you need to know what you’re in for, and most specifically you should not compare it to any of Aster’s earlier movies. Those who end up watching this expecting another Hereditary or Midsommar, will be disappointed and most likely confused as heck.
The movie is chock-full of metaphors about childhood trauma, manipulation, guilt-tripping, shame and anxiety, presented with some crazy visuals, weird characters and great performances. Art-wise you could say it often leans into the more abstract, where you aren’t told exactly how to interpret everything and this will often lead to some real wtf-moments. To be honest, the first part of the movie which takes place in Skid Row, despite how insane it actually is, is probably the most down-to-earth and believable part of the entire movie. Just like Beau has no other choice than to keep trudging through the weirdness he encounters, we who watch his journey have no other choice than to keep trudging through it with him, not always able to make sense of what is happening. One easy way to define the movie, is to call it “Beau has mommy issues”, with very clear depictions of his mother being manipulative and toxic. He’s filled with anxiety, guilt, shame, and everything that comes with such a crappy upbringing. While this is certainly the core of the movie’s topics, there’s so many other things here that could make you quite busy with metaphor-hunting. I personally saw some vague hints about possible sexual abuse, and possibly some Jocasta complex thrown into the mix. Many things in Beau’s life appears to be muddled with lies from his mother, and we, the viewers, are not entirely sure what is fact and what is not.
Joaquin Phoenix does a good job portraying the anxiety-ridden, guilt-tripped to the point of barely functioning, and constantly confused and scared Beau. The character’s confused and totally lost appearance fits in with how completely without hope we realize Beau actually is. Aster described this film as a “nightmare comedy”, and as “if you pumped a 10-year-old full of Zoloft, and had him get your groceries”. No matter how you may view this film and how you may interpret it, there’s no doubt Aster knows a little bit about trauma and anxiety, that’s for sure.
Beau Is Afraid is a weird, surrealistic Freudian nightmare, sometimes quite abstract and a bit demanding to keep up with, but if you want something on the weirder scale, this might be something for you.
Writer and director: Ari Aster
Country & year: USA, 2023
Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Kylie Rogers, Denis Ménochet, Parker Posey, Zoe Lister-Jones, Armen Nahapetian, Julia Antonelli, Stephen McKinley Henderson