Beau is Afraid… and that’s about it

Hopefully, Ari Aster’s worked through what he needs to so we can all move on.
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Beau is Afraid. // Courtesy A24

At one point during Beau is Afraid, I found myself thinking, “A woman could never get a movie like this greenlit.” My immediate follow-up thought was, “A woman would never need to make a movie like this in the first place.” I hate to generalize—we aren’t a monolith, after all—but I do think I’m right. In any case, it’s hard to imagine any of the women I know spending three hours exploring their awkward sexual hangups, social failures, and oedipal complexes. In my experience, that’s usually the realm of white men with MFAs, which (surprise!) writer-director Ari Aster is.

I don’t want to be too hard on the film (or, for that matter, MFAs); parts of it are great. Aster has repeatedly proven he’s a visually creative filmmaker with an interest in exploring our deepest personal fears. Hereditary and Midsommar are excellent examples of both. That impressive imagination and technical ability are present here, too. But as the film digs further into its protagonist’s unremarkable insecurities, Beau is Afraid feels progressively less like a sprawling existential odyssey and more like the product of undeserved indulgence.

Beau is Afraid begins with a relatable portrait of anxiety. Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is visiting his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) before a trip to visit his manipulative mother, Mona (Patti LuPone). On the way home, Beau trudges through an urban hellscape. The streets are littered with corpses, junkies, and murderers, all of whom seem hell-bent on victimizing the terrified Beau (as someone whose particular brand of anxiety stems from personal safety and comfort, this sequence hits uncomfortably close to the bone).

In quick succession, Beau misses his flight, is locked out of his building, and receives shocking news that Mona has died in a grotesque home accident. Desperate to get back for her funeral, Beau is hit by a car whose driver, Grace (Amy Ryan), brings Beau home to recuperate under the care of her surgeon husband, Roger (Nathan Lane). The couple also shares their roof with troubled daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers) and Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), a hulking veteran who served with their late son in Venezuela and suffers from severe PTSD.

Beau’s efforts to escape from Grace and Roger’s house and make it to Mona’s funeral are punctuated by surreal dream sequences, harrowing encounters, and incredible theater production in the woods that Beau finds himself immersed. After finally making it to Mona’s house, however, he learns that his attempt to finally get closure for his complex mother-son relationship (we see bits of his childhood in flashbacks) may not be what he expects.

Aster’s depiction of Beau’s mental state for the first two-thirds of the film’s lengthy runtime is an awkwardly funny and visually fascinating depiction of anxiety. Because of the film’s surreal nature, it’s hard to tell if  Beau’s perception of the world around him is accurate or if he’s projecting. Not that it matters, because either way, the emotional portrayal is dead-on. It’s a relatable, relentless impressionistic nightmare, illustrated with incredible attention to detail (there’s no way the production team didn’t have a blast coming up with set decoration for this thing).

The film’s final act, however, reveals Beau is Afraid of what it actually is: an astoundingly Freudian exploration of guilt and regret. Beau has a complicated relationship with sex that, mixed with Mona’s domineering energy, has kept him from living a fulfilling life (or so he believes). He’s buried himself under a ton of guilt and regret instead of experiencing the heroic story he thinks he should have had. That’s it. It’s the narrative of every self-pitying boyfriend you’ve ever had, blown up to monumental proportions. 

There are moments that suggest Aster knows how pathetic that is, and the ending (again, a real stunner visually) suggests he hates Beau as much as we do. However, even if that is the case, it doesn’t necessitate a story this long. Beau is Afraid owes its entire existence to the work of Charlie Kaufman, who, in his films to date, has managed to cover the same amount of self-loathing in an average of two hours, with more nuanced results. 

You could, in theory, watch Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and still have an hour left over to do things Beau should do but never does—stuff like calling your parents just to say you love them, doing something selfless for another person, or spending time with a friend. You could do those things, or you could just watch another white dude wallow in self-hatred and not bother to have some perspective. Your call.

Categories: Movies