There are certain films that feel designed to be confessional, a director showing their entire hand, emptying their idiosyncrasies and holdups into the images they create in such a way that a kind of uncomfortable intimacy is formed – a parasocial relationship, to commandeer the parlance of modern times. Beau is Afraid, from A24 golden boy Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) is such a film, as could probably be garnered from the first few frames of the film’s trailer. Of course, all auteur-driven films feature the heart, soul and creativity of their maker in their form, but films like Beau Is Afraid position themselves explicitly as a focused expression of a psyche, where even the most bizarre images and ideas are laden with portentous meaning – meaning that is, at its heart, relatively easy to decipher.
In Beau Is Afraid, Joaquin Phoenix stars as the titular Beau, an anxiety-ridden shut-in who has spent his life under the yoke of a domineering mother, played in flashback by Zoe Lister-Jones and in modern day by Patti LuPone. There’s a core reason for Beau’s incapacitating, crippling fear of the world around him. At the moment of his conception, on their wedding night, Beau’s father had a heart attack due to a congenital heart condition while on top of his mother, dying at the exact same time. Beau has been raised knowing the same fate awaits him if he indulges in his carnal desires, and has grown up a pent up, screwed up virgin. Beau is due to visit his mother for the first time in seven months, and a confluence of unfortunate events drive a fearful Beau into a cross-country journey to reach her that’s one part Planes, Trains and Automobiles, another part The Odyssey, and maybe one other part The Truman Show. Or, according to Aster himself, a ‘Jewish Lord of the Rings’.
The third film from the mind behind Hereditary and Midsommar mastermind Ari Aster is a bit of a left turn from the filmmaker – an existential comedy-cum-nightmare where the horrors are anxiety and mummy issues. It’s a tremendously mounted experiment, but one that lacks a beating heart at its core.
For Aster, the film’s Jewishness is clearly important, though you might not be able to tell from the story itself. Incredibly little is made of Beau’s religion, or what the nature of his belief is. Indeed, the ‘Jewishness’ of the story apparently lies in the heightened and specific feeling of anxiety, the kind we might associate with ‘Jewish’ films of years past. Perhaps there is also some element of Jewishness in the telling of a story laden with Job-like trials, an evocation of the intimate relationship Judaism has shared with Biblical persecution throughout history. It’s worth noting that the original short that Beau is based on actually centred around a black man, as did the first draft of the feature script. At some point that was changed, and the film’s ‘Jewishness’ became more of a focus – though ultimately it doesn’t really feature in the text in a meaningful way at all. Why the change was made is unknown, but perhaps telling, a suggestion that Aster felt the need to go all in on telegraphing his own reality through his central character.
If this all sounds very complicated, well, yes and no. Beau Is Afraid is at once a complex film, in that it is a three-hour epic jam-packed with event and any number of striking images and setpieces; and yet deep down its storytelling is rather simple. One gets the feeling watching Beau that Aster feels the need to escalate beyond his earlier successes with Hereditary and Midsommar by leaning heavily into this aforementioned confessional form, and the thing Aster seems to need to confess above it all is that his mother is the cause of all his problems. He’s working very consciously in the vein of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry, whose neurotic, navel-gazing work is elevated by a sense of radical earnestness, that feeling of needing to work something out by tying oneself in knots. What sets a Synechdoche New York or Eternal Sunshine apart from Beau Is Afraid is those other filmmakers’ willingness to leave messy ends open to speculation. Aster seems to feel the need to provide answers, to address every aspect of Beau’s complaints and his own, even if those answers happen to include killer, knife-throwing war veterans and giant sentient penises (yes, you read that right).
The central issue in all this, really, is Beau himself. He’s a vessel, a balled up wet handkerchief of hangups and complaints to whom things happen, but who is given precious little to do, to choose, to express. Joaquin Phoenix makes a meal of looking bug-eyed and horrified, and there are momentary glimpses of a man who just aches to be cared for, to be mothered – but Aster ultimately leaves us with precious little to tell us why we should care, leaving the experience entirely cerebral. This is harder to notice in the film’s opening segments, the highpoint of Beau Is Afraid, in which Beau must make everyday ventures into the outside world only to find himself beset by escalating horrors that wait directly outside his door, mostly in the form of terrifying, dirty vagrants. Icky representation of the homeless and mentally unwell aside, this section is fleet, inventive, and funny, the audience right there alongside Beau every step of the way. Once Beau’s journey really begins, as he descends into a mystical woods on the outskirts of town, narrative drift takes hold, and the seams start to show as Beau Is Afraid drags on and on, offering little of interest.
Aster is perhaps the foremost among a stable of nouveau American filmmakers, largely ushered in by A24, who represent a possible future for auteur filmmaking on a grander scale. The works of Aster, as well as Robert Eggers, David Lowery and the like, certainly walk the walk, but often have a hollowness at their core, a feeling of regality and importance without a thrumming heart within. Beau Is Afraid is the latest and one of the most curious of those efforts, a film that is nothing if not honest, and is full of worthy and striking moments, but still feels like it’s pulling its punches.
Beau Is Afraid in cinemas now.
Beau Is Afraid
Movie title: Beau Is Afraid (Aster, 2023)
Movie description: The third film from the mind behind Hereditary and Midsommar mastermind Ari Aster is a bit of a left turn from the filmmaker - an existential comedy-cum-nightmare where the horrors are anxiety and mummy issues. It’s a tremendously mounted experiment, but one that lacks a beating heart at its core.
Date published: April 21, 2023
Author: Ari Aster
Director(s): Ari Aster
Actor(s): Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan
Genre: Comedy, Horror, Drama