Gone are the respective horrors of Hereditary’s witch covens and Midsommar’s pagan cults. In Ari Aster’s third feature film, Beau Is Afraid, he has decided to showcase a horror that will hit incredibly close to home for every viewer: that of an overbearing parent. This latest mind trip of a film from the auteur filmmaker seems to be pulling from all sorts of fascinating storytelling inspirations, yet it all can be distilled down into a tale as old as time: how we react in the face of our parents. From Odysseus in “The Odyssey” to the writings of Freud and Kafka, looking forward to films like Defending Your Life by Albert Brooks, The Truman Show by Peter Weir, or even a road-trip movie like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle by Danner Leiner, Aster seems to be channeling everything he can into the story of one man: Beau Wasserman.
Played by Joaquin Phoenix, in a role that seems to be partly channeling his Inherent Vice performance, it’s difficult to not feel sympathetic for the man. Living in quite possibly the scariest cinematic neighborhood imaginable, Beau races through the street to avoid being harassed and threatened by those who hang around the entrance to his apartment. He has to hop over a decaying body just to get inside, and it’s not as if his small apartment is a legitimate escape. Infested with bugs, menaced by neighbors leaving notes, and quite barren of furniture, the only solace might be the decent natural light his place receives. But even that gift comes at a price, with a massive billboard of Jesus proclaiming to “see his every abomination” providing nothing but shame for the titular character; something that is in no short supply at any point in the 179 minute runtime.
Reuniting once again with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster and his trusted DP are able to communicate so much information within each jam-packed frame. As the camera tightly follows Beau up the block to his apartment, we bear witness to the mayhem separated by nothing but a flimsy glass door. Aster no longer needs to bring his audience to a creepy treehouse or the commune of Hårga to terrify them. Instead, he can simply remind you that there are a plethora of nightmarish events that could take place in your very home. Nothing is more spine tingling than seeing a spider crawl under your couch. In the case of Beau however, his crippling levels of anxiety and dread only add to this dilemma. We first meet Beau while he is at his therapist. That’s not exactly the first time meeting Beau, but some insane surprises are best left for the big screen. Nevertheless, this short session tells us all we need to know about Beau. He suffers from one of the most common feelings in history: guilt. It doesn’t take a genius to see how his mother’s calling affects the very fiber of his being. Once we see the first conversation between the two, that notion only becomes crystalized. Aster slowly, but ever so surely, pushes closer and closer into Beau’s dejected face, as he goes beyond asking or demanding for advice from his mother; he needs her to tell him exactly what to do.
As Beau sets off on the journey to visit his mother, we learn more about his childhood, his current lifestyle, and even alternative looks into the future. Aster is wholly concerned with every aspect of Beau’s life, even that which has not, or may never, occur. There’s a dazzling level of literal production design to be found in one particularly extended sequence, and it serves as a massive reminder that Beau Is Afraid is very much the deeply considered brain-child of Aster. What’s most fascinating, and exciting, about this film though, is the massive departure from his previous two films. Aster’s two features prior to this can be argued to be masterpieces of modern horror. And while there is plenty of existential dread and more than a handful of nightmarish sequences in Beau Is Afraid, the film is also incredibly funny. As Aster slowly reveals more about Beau and his motivations to the audience, the picture becomes a bit more clear about what drives this man: He’s a bit of a loser who needs a powerful woman. It’s kind of like Phantom Thread (which receives a lovely homage), if Reynolds Woodcock was a terrible fashion designer and never amounted to anything aside from barely learning how to sew. At one point, somebody looks Beau in the face and tells him they “like that he’s not macho”. And while apt, it’s not all on Beau.
Beau’s upbringing and relationship with his mother, which Aster calls, “the central mystery of the film”, clearly has left a mark on the man both detrimental and profound. As the fourth act comes barreling to a close, Aster and Phoenix descend into fully surreal territory. We witness just how broken down Beau’s psyche is. Yet it’s still incredibly funny, and has what will likely be the best needle drop of the year. But make no mistake, this is still an Ari Aster conclusion. In other words, you will walk out of the theater messed up. In a Q&A between Martin Scorsese and Aster, Scorsese asked the audience how they felt after going on such a journey. And that’s the most succinct way one could describe an experience such as this. Although almost episodic in nature, Aster and Phoenix are able to channel the ideas introduced in each segment all through the singular character of Beau. This is a bold character piece, and in my opinion, cinema as a whole is better off having been introduced to the titular character of Beau Is Afraid.
Beau Is Afraid is currently in limited release between theaters in NY/LA. A24 will be expanding the film nationwide this week, starting April 20.