Beau is Afraid opens in theaters on April 21, 2023.
More comedies from American studios should be three-hour surrealist horror odysseys steeped in grief and guilt. Or at least, more of them should be as cinematically daring as Beau Is Afraid, the third feature from Hereditary and Midsommar director Ari Aster. Produced by A24, its abstract story anchored by ponderous themes make it difficult to describe, but few movies this star-studded or vast in scope arrive so fully-formed, or draw from familial fears and psychosexual musings in ways that yield this many laughs per minute. It’s the kind of work that takes a long time to digest, but watching as it builds from strange and silly, to strange and silly and moving is completely worthwhile.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau Wasserman, a lonely 50-something living in a dilapidated apartment in what appears to be a modern American city born satirically from conservative propaganda. Crime and mental instability run rampant in this borderline-offensive conception of urban life, one that immediately conjures Beau’s most vivid fears (a potent mix of hypochondria and agoraphobia). Phoenix is entirely committed to the bit, capturing Beau’s wide-eyed terror as he wades through streets full of violent, naked geriatrics and heavily tattooed gangsters out to get him for no rhyme or reason.
It’s all a bit tongue-in-cheek, from neighbors who pick fights with him to people refusing to come to his aid, and it speaks to the ways his character is made to feel both invisible and yet hyper-visible, each in moments far from opportune. Beau Is Afraid also leans into some of the anxieties surrounding aging (and aged bodies) that Aster portrayed in his previous films in far less tactful ways. Where this was once mere window-dressing for shock value, here it magnifies Beau’s perspective on himself, and on what is revealed to be a rather unfortunate physical deformity that further enhances his stifling fears of sexual intimacy.
Beau Is Afraid leans into some of the anxieties surrounding aging that Aster portrayed in his previous films in far less tactful ways.
All of this is merely groundwork for the central plot – though calling it a “plot” in a traditional sense hardly feels apt – in which Beau learns of the sudden demise of his overbearing, uber-successful single mother, Mona, under bleakly hilarious circumstances. This kicks off a winding odyssey, told in four distinct chapters, as he makes the long journey home. Where the first chapter establishes his living situation, the second sees him practically adopted by a kindly, affluent suburban couple, Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane), whose manner verges on eerily upbeat thanks to a pair of fine-tuned performances.
They display the kind of affection Beau lacked and yearned for growing up in Mona’s shadow – both Ryan and Lane, being veterans of screen comedy, successfully imbue their characters with a distinctly sitcom cheer – but they seem to harbor an underlying darkness Beau can’t quite shake, as if he’s used to every helping hand swiftly turning into a fist, making him all the more pitiable. Grace and Roger also promise to help get him home in time for Mona’s funeral, a ticking clock that becomes subtly exciting, but some rather convenient inconveniences keep him homebound. This opens the door to comedic absurdism spiked with paranoia, a potent concoction that proves jaw-droppingly funny thanks to Phoenix’s doe-eyed naivete.
The third chapter sees Beau taken in by a forest-dwelling theatre troupe, whose esoteric stage work not only instills his with dreamlike possibilities for a happy future, but acts as a Rosetta stone for the film’s religious musings (as a distinctly Jewish tale of suffering) via Old Testament stories shown through a fun-house mirror. Aster presents these branches in consciousness and reality in the form of semi-animated segments, yielding surprisingly vibrant and emotionally lucid expressions of personal longing, set against eye-popping vistas on an enormous scale.
The fourth and final segment's specifics are best left completely unspoiled.
The fourth and final segment, whose specifics are best left completely unspoiled, is a much more direct confrontation of the themes Aster slowly builds across the first three chapters, using scattered dreams and flashbacks to Beau’s childhood to assess his complicated feelings in the wake of Mona’s death. Beau Is Afraid is as much about the loss of a parent as it is about the ensuing guilt that might accompany such a tumultuous experience, born from the complex and even paradoxical ways the past might manifest in the present.
Beau is Afraid Photos
It’s a film whose exact timeline is often unclear, thanks to era-specific details that feel out of place and never fully mesh with the characters’ costume and makeup designs. It seems to skip back and forth between events and memories on a whim, with flashbacks motivated less by storytelling function and more by sensation. Where these could have read as a random assemblage of scenes in a lesser movie, Beau Is Afraid effectively embodies a splintered consciousness; its apparent time jumps are often tied spatially to Beau himself, as if he were drifting between “now” and “then” each time he turns his head.
In childhood flashbacks he’s played by Armen Nahapetian, who fits the part so uncannily that he comes off as a digitally de-aged Phoenix.
This temporal fudging is also aided by the fact that Beau is usually depicted as balding, grey, and frumpy (except in childhood flashbacks, where he’s played by Armen Nahapetian, who fits the part so uncannily that he comes off as a digitally de-aged Phoenix). But no matter how the movie portrays his mother – played with intimidating brusqueness by Zoe Lister-Jones when Beau is a child, and with stern furor by a magnificent Patti LuPone when he’s older – she always seems younger and more vivacious than him, thanks in no small part to her bright red locks and her equally fiery demeanor. In his memories, she may as well be frozen in amber at two specific points in time – moments tied to memories of strict disapproval and disappointment – never aging beyond him, and never letting him mature in the process. Her presence in his life remains so vast, and so all-encompassing, that she’s the only lens through which he’s capable of viewing his own insecurities.
Phoenix’s performance is key to the absurdist tone. Beau is Afraid’s gargantuan three-hour runtime is practically justified by his reaction shots alone, on which the perspective lingers for lengthy periods without cutting away. It’s as if the camera were lying in wait for Beau to comment on or object to the many oddities around him, or the personal slights hurled in his direction (the result is razor-wire intensity that tickles as much as it slashes). What he offers instead is resigned acceptance of his circumstances, even as they grow increasingly fantastical. Beau Is Afraid seldom offers clarity as to what’s real or unreal, but it remains in lockstep with the ways birth, sex, aging, and death become scrambled into an anxious continuum in Beau’s mind. Each one portends the next in subtle ways that we’re practically taught to anticipate through the repetition of dreams laced with Oedipal implications. (R.I.P. Sigmund Freud; you would have loved this movie.)
But above all else, what makes Beau Is Afraid such a riveting watch is that it’s funny and terrifying in equal measure, often in the same moments. It achieves what Joker – which featured Phoenix’s Oscar-winning performance – failed to with jarring tone, practically transforming Aster’s signature close ups, of dead faces frozen in moments of fear and anguish, into Greek comedy masks.
The filmmaking is stellar across the board. Not only is the use of sound particularly jolting – the ingenious way it mixes human voices enhances Beau’s paranoia, making this a must-watch in the loudest possible theater – but Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s visual framing outdoes most straightforward American comedies in its mischievous approach. Much of the wry humor is born from the bizarre things immediately in Beau’s vicinity, whether that be minor shifts in space or the off-kilter behavior of supporting characters, each played by surprising and familiar faces.
All the while, his physical relationship to these story elements plays like a gag in and of itself, whether through Phoenix’s disconcerting non-responses, or the way he absorbs emotional punishment without complaint – or simply through the contrasting energy of Beau’s polite listlessness with other characters’ hyperactivity. He remains centered as the movie captures the chaos unfolding around him. Most of the time, Beau is the punchline, but the setup always appears to be some deeply personal confession from Aster, who seems to recognize that his own nagging neuroses are the butt of the joke. One can only hope that crafting a horror movie this self-deprecating was helpful in some way; the experience of watching it is likely to be at least confrontational – if not cathartic.
Beau Is Afraid never stops ticking, even when it takes lengthy detours into imaginative fantasies of love and happiness just outside Beau’s reach before snapping back like a rubber band to its strange un-reality. Anchored by Joaquin Phoenix’s absurdist performance as a paranoid man making his way home to see his mother, it escalates in both physical scale and overlapping allusions that soon loop back on themselves, as if it were slyly deconstructing its own storytelling language. These eventually build to an overt and obvious yet wholly focused metaphor for how creating cinema is an act of vulnerability, one with little upside except exposing the most fearful and shameful corners of oneself, for all the world to see. In that vein, it’s the kind of movie worth recommending for its ambition alone, merely to witness the audacious result of anxious self-loathing writ large across the silver screen, without an ounce of restraint. That it’s also a remarkably well-crafted horror-comedy is a cherry on top.