Beau is Afraid (2023)

Ari Aster | 2hr 59min

To what extent can the constant failures of Joaquin Phoenix’s guilt-ridden paranoiac in Beau is Afraid be blamed on him, and how much can be directly pinned on the surreal, irrational world he fearfully exists in? In this bizarro version of New York, a deranged, naked killer known as the Birthday Boy Stab Man haunts the streets outside Beau’s apartment building, along with masses of other violent lunatics trying to break in. Angry neighbours slide passive-aggressive notes under his door in the middle of the night demanding he turn down his music, despite there being no music to begin with. And just as he is just about to leave to visit his wealthy, successful mother, he discovers the keys to his front door have disappeared, thereby abruptly ending his plans, and disappointing her in the process.

Beau is Afraid may not be as straightforward a horror as Hereditary or Midsommar, but the nihilistic terror which Ari Aster crafts with acute formal detail rather manifests as a cosmic, existential dread, expanding far beyond the reaches of any cult. Whether the senseless world we are presented with is real or merely the filter through which Beau might justify his faults is irrelevant – it is sometimes both, and occasionally neither. Picking one apart from the other would be futile. This three-hour odyssey from Beau’s city apartment to his mother’s country mansion is absurdism at its purest, so hypnotically inscrutable that it is surprising Charlie Kaufman didn’t conceptualise it first.

The formal detail of this absurd alternate universe is incredibly well-drawn by Aster in the first scenes – corpses lie in the streets, violent men lurk outside Beau’s apartment, and even the elevator inside dangerously lets off sparks every time the doors move.

Even so, Aster’s fingerprints are all over this film, both in the way he frames his tableaux like stages and uses them to hint at sinister forces pulling strings behind the scenes. After Beau badly injures himself and is taken in by oddball nuclear family, hints that he is being closely studied begin to appear. Roger and Grace are uncomfortably accommodating to their guest, giving him their angsty teenage daughter’s bedroom and offering to drive him straight to his mother’s place. After they eventually pressure him to delay the trip by a day, Grace covertly slides him a napkin with a message.

“Stop incriminating yourself.”

It could very well be a scenario lifted from Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, accusing our protagonist of an unknown crime which nobody will tell him. Later when she slyly urges him to flick to channel 78, he discovers live surveillance footage recording his every move. Most unsettling of all, hitting the fast-forward button briefly reveals his own future – scenes from the film that not even we have reached yet. Is his entire life predetermined? If so, by who? Can he truly be blamed for anything if his path was laid out from the minute he was born?

Time disintegrates with the frequent intrusion of Beau’s childhood flashbacks, warping our comprehension of how they really unfolded.

Linear time continues to erode all through Beau is Afraid, frequently flashing back to childhood traumas and vanishing entire chunks of his life through swift, seamless transitions. At one point when he accidentally stumbles across a pastoral theatre troupe in the woods aptly named the ‘Orphans of the Forest’, reality also follows the disintegrating path that time has disappeared down, absorbing Beau into a colourful, partially animated dreamscape. This may be the most mesmerising, visually adventurous sequence of the film, as well as its most confounding. Like a character in a pop-up storybook, artificial environments rise and collapse all around him, blending live-action sets with ravishing hand-drawn animation to transport him into yet another universe even more distant from our own.

The tale we are presented with during this interlude is one of grief and perseverance, transforming Beau into an alternate version of himself who starts his own family, is separated from them in a flood, and spends his entire life searching for them again. Accompanying us through it all, a narrator speaks in second-person future tense – “You will” – prophetically offering him safe passage into an imagined life that might manifest should he break free of his mother’s paralysing grip. Though there is much heartache to be found here, there is also the notion that he once had something valuable to lose. In the film’s reality, he never even had that.

The partially animated play of Beau’s alternate life is an astounding piece of direction from Aster – a true cinematic highlight in an occasionally messy film.

This alternate Beau’s search for lost family certainly parallels the main Beau’s journey to see his mother, with the narrator accusing them equally of being “so lost in your selfishness no one could ever find you,” yet the happy ending of this play is not one we ever expect to see manifest at the film’s conclusion. The darkly comic repetition of Beau’s constant, ironic defeats is so rigidly woven into this narrative that only an interlude as artificially constructed as this could break from that pattern.

Instead, the more the film moves along, the more pitiful Beau becomes. Much like his role in You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix packs on a great deal of weight for this role, though the way he carries it is feebler and far more lethargic. This is an image of a man burdened by his own passivity, desperately desiring the approval of his mother yet constantly falling short. The plain grey pyjamas he wears on his mission to finally do something right make him stand out as a man not ready to engage with the outside world, and especially one so vibrantly complicated as that which Aster has assembled. He feels much safer inside his own guilt-ridden mind, and so that is exactly where he is doomed to linger in the film’s mind-bending final act.

Joaquin Phoenix is paunchy, jumpy ball of nerves as Beau, disappearing into the role as easily as he did with the Joker or Freddie Quell.

The rug that Aster pulls out from under our feet is not some elucidating, rational explanation of everything we have witnessed, but rather sucks us even deeper into Beau’s self-loathing subconscious, finally literalising his deepest, most humiliating fears. A sexual encounter with the only person he ever felt some attraction to before his mother came between them might almost be his first successful, independent rebellion against her authority, though even this is tainted with reminders of the past. Specifically, the realisation that the very bed they are making love on is his mother’s and the fact that his father died mid-orgasm at the exact moment he was conceived both turn him into a modern Oedipus of sorts. No wonder his life has borne so much guilt, given that the reason for its being is so tied to death.

The Freudian layers of these relationships are formally intricate, if not always tonally consistent, especially when a monstrous symbol of sexual repression arrives on the scene and aims for cheap laughs. Given the film’s tendency to draw out scenes a little longer than required, this isn’t a one-off flaw either, leading to a narrative which is somewhat bloated in parts. That said, the enormity of Aster’s psychological reckoning in Beau is Afraid absolutely necessitates its three-hour run time, and may have simply been better served with more succinctness across a greater number of settings.

Beau’s mother Mona is a constant presence throughout this film in Beau’s flashbacks, revealing the source of much humiliation and repression.

Even at its most imperfect, there is still little which can take away from the incredible formal invention and surreal string of symbols which hold Beau is Afraid together as an elusive, Kafkaesque allegory, almost certain to reveal deeper nuances on multiple viewings. The natural instinct to gain both approval and independence from one’s mother is the paradoxical objective that connects Beau to the rest of humanity, yet the guilt which comes from recognising the impossibility of this is magnified by a thousand in Aster’s surreal character study. For Beau, the chance that she perceives these exact thoughts running through his head is the most mortifying scenario of all, as only then would his last shred of perceived dignity be swallowed by his self-destructive shame. Beneath the absurd randomness of his psychological voyage, this primal horror offers an internal, guiding logic to Aster’s cinematic nightmare, carving out a delusional path to the original source of man’s self-destructive shame.

Beau is Afraid is currently in theatres.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s