Beau Is Afraid (2023)
Written & Directed by Ari Aster
I’ve begun to feel like much of American culture & media is just a falsehood lately. For me, it’s been a combination of sitting back and soaking in the strangeness of social interaction in that culture, embracing my autism, and taking psychedelics. Everything feels chaotic in a very contrived, artificial way. We know that nothing about man-made societies is unintentionally chaotic; there are lots of moving parts behind the scenes. So, who benefits from the chaos? That seems easy to answer: the capital class, the owners, the managerial class. Chaos keeps people disoriented, unable to form bonds, and thus unable to achieve solidarity. Each person comes to feel isolated, terrified and atomized. Individuals are standing in the middle of their own personal hurricanes. This is the entire tone of Ari Aster’s latest picture, Beau Is Afraid.
Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is psyching himself the day before a trip to visit his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone), for their annual remembrance of Beau’s dad dying. It seems that Mr. Wasserman had a fatal condition that caused him to die upon having his first orgasm ever on his honeymoon with Mona. As a result, Beau has shied away from intimacy with anyone out of fear that he, too, would die should he climax. Things are going badly for our protagonist, starting with the terrifying neighborhood he lives in. The streets are full of raging, angry meth heads or nearly comatose opioid addicts. A rough night of sleep becomes a panicked morning when Beau’s keys & suitcase disappear from his apartment door when he goes to grab one last item. His psychiatrist (Stephen McKinley) has prescribed him a new anti-anxiety med but says it must be taken with water. We never know why exactly, but it seems the apartment building’s water goes out just after Beau puts the pill in his mouth.
The madness escalates, becoming an odyssey of anxiety, a journey through nightmare scenarios that will make most audience members squirm in their seats. Recently, I reviewed Ari Aster’s short films and said I suspected the dark humor present in those pieces would be introduced to the public who knew him mainly for Hereditary and Midsommar. I was certainly right. This is Ari Aster, folks. You are either going to love him or hate him after this one. I loved the movie because it felt confrontational and a pure expression of one person’s sensibilities. We rarely get movies playing on IMAX screens that are as harsh & rough as this one.
Even if you didn’t like Beau Is Afraid, you must admit it is a monument to directorial excess. The typical formula in Hollywood is that a director makes a surprise indie or low-budget hit. That paves the way to a large-scale picture, often of the Marvel variety, where that filmmaker’s personal aesthetics are suppressed for the corporate formula. It happened to Chloe Zhao, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, and Destin Daniel Cretton. They all made outstanding smaller-scale movies with strong personal voices, only to make Marvel dreck, where the action sequences were already storyboarded and pre-visualized before a contract was signed. Beau Is Afraid is the opposite of this, a film that unashamedly is what it is. Three hours of non-stop anxiety, something that I would expect is comparable to binging uppers and going into you completely crash.
One of the things Aster does so well is present the world through his protagonist’s eyes. American society hasn’t quite reached the mad zenith we see, especially in the film’s first hour, but it’s not that far off. Look up footage from the streets of Philadelphia, where fentanyl abuse has run rampant. It would be lazy to assume Aster is being reactionary, but I don’t believe he dehumanizes these throngs of broken people that horrify Beau. After all, the director is making a comedy and elevates the absurdity of what it is like to be alive at this time in the middle of a collapsing society. Yeah, the cities are crumbling around us, but the actual collapse that will do the most harm over time is the one inside our heads. Places can be rebuilt, but the human mind & soul is a different matter.
The movie consists of four rough acts. The first is Beau in the city, where he panics over preparations to visit his mother and ends up dealing with an escalating series of problems. The movie gives off the vibes of something like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours here. This transitions into the second act, where Beau ends up in the care of a kind suburban couple, Grace & Roger (Amy Ryan & Nathan Lane). It becomes evident early on that they are lying to him. What about is a little more complicated. Their teenage daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers), is infuriated to have Beau sleeping in their house. At first, we assume it is because the couple gave him Toni’s bedroom, but there’s more going on. Eventually, Beau leaves (or is “escapes” more appropriate?) and encounters “The Orphans of the Forest,” a troupe of actors staging plays in the middle of the woods. This contains the sequence most people will probably like (up until its conclusion), where Beau’s imagination transposes him into the story being told on stage.
The final act of the movie is where I suspect most people will be completely turned off, and that is when Beau finally reaches his mother’s house. The things that happen during the movie’s final hour are, and I am not exaggerating here, completely unhinged but also incredibly hilarious. Patti LuPone steals the film when we finally experience her onscreen, one of the most terrifying villains in cinema. Beau is so pathetic, and she is just absolutely relentless in tearing him to shreds emotionally. The movie never tries to frame anything that happens through a lens of realism; this is surrealism. I don’t quite think I’ve ever seen another director match David Lynch before, but damn if Aster does not come the closest to date. If Eraserhead is about the fears of being a parent, then Beau Is Afraid is about the terror of being someone’s child. I saw someone say this is like if Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York was playing on IMAX screens at your local mall and that is an extremely apt comparison.
If your experience with Aster is limited to his last two features, you may not like what you get. Personally, I enjoyed the hell out of the experience. The three hours do not zoom by; some takes might have gone on a few beats too long, but I can’t complain. We rarely get such a wild movie released on such a wide scale. The film is going to challenge a lot of people’s notions about the structure of character arcs. Beau doesn’t find redemption or really learn anything. In most instances, things happen to him regardless of his own actions. Aster does seem to find pleasure in tormenting this sad sack and his audience. A few sequences hint at something warm & fuzzy, only to piss all over those expectations. There’s also no clear point to end the movie. Even the ending we get feels like Aster saying, “Okay, we have to stop filming now.” I don’t dislike it, though. Ariana remarked a few hours after we watched this that she could see the influences from European cinema, and I think she nailed it. Aster is operating on a different wavelength than the movies we see coming out in cineplexes across the States. He’s bringing in unfamiliar elements, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
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