Arts and Entertainment

Discomfort, Anxiety, and Fear in Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid

There is not one moment of safety within the three long hours of Beau is Afraid.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

To call Ari Aster’s new film deeply unsettling would be an incredible understatement. Beau is Afraid demands an audience reaction—specifically, deep and unrelenting discomfort. With Beau is Afraid, Aster, known for psychological horror films such as Heredity (2018) and Midsommar (2019), draws upon trippy visuals and a loose, almost Odyssey-like narrative in his unique depiction of fear, guilt, and shame. The film follows Beau, a stunted man-child in Joaquin Phoenix’s almost-50-year-old body, as he traverses a dystopian landscape on a journey to the funeral of his mother (Patti LuPone), encountering childhood trauma and Jobian levels of psychological torment on the way. The film follows this narrative in five distinct sections, each bookmarked by some disastrous event and subsequent change in scenery, that reflect different layers of subconscious fear.

Beau is Afraid starts as a creative portrait of everyday fears ballooned to extraordinary sizes. The first act is steeped in disaster, as Beau’s life is characterized by discomfort and abuse. In a New York Times video, Aster described Beau’s environment as an “evil clown mirror of our world”—a suitable analogy for a universe riddled with anarchy, violent homeless people, and a loose venomous spider. Throughout the first act, misfortune is cranked to an absurd level, blending horrific violence and discomfort with strange, dark humor, portraying fear through Beau’s implied dissociative disorder. Aster utilizes this act as a painting: precise yet sprawling, frantic yet silly, painted with a keen eye for detail and imagery—a strong start to a film that quickly dissolves into increasingly confusing and, upon closer inspection, rather hollow narratives.

After this first act, which ends with Beau getting hit by a truck, the film dissolves into a waking nightmare—an Odyssey that gets increasingly uncomfortable and hard to watch. On this journey, Aster brings us deeper and deeper into Beau’s psyche, using his environment (and the characters that populate it) as clever reflections of his mind. These echoes are portrayed through the use of repeated imagery—such as the various drugs and prescribed pills that Beau is constantly being administered—but also through motifs and themes scattered across the film. Most notable is Beau’s relationship with sex, which he has apparently never had, as he was told very young that if he did, he would have a heart attack, just as his father did, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, et cetera. Ultimately, however, Beau’s environment is a reminder of his loneliness, most explicitly explored within a trippy, 15-minute animation sequence that portrays the life that Beau could have had, complete with a wife and three sons. It is through moments like this that Beau is Afraid’s unrestrained storytelling is most effective; unbound by the shackles of logic or complex narrative, the film bathes in psychedelic imagery and dream-like form, adding dimension and character to the emotions that drive the film. 

While The Odyssey is a tale of a man trying to return to his wife, Beau is Afraid is a tale of a boy trying to reach his mother. If this parallel reeks of Freudian psychology, that is undoubtedly intentional. The film bases its characters and relationships on Freud’s many psychological theories—namely the Oedipus complex (which describes the sexual yearning a boy feels for his mother and the competition he feels with his father), which the film uses to explain Beau’s stunted and sexually repressed inner psyche. Freud’s theories on the practical manifestation of subconscious desires in the dream-world, however, act as the conceit driving the film. The whole film reads as a dream; Beau’s subconscious desires serve as plot points, uniting the themes running throughout. Freud’s obsession with phallic imagery, for example, manifests itself in the film as a giant penis-monster that haunts the attic of Beau’s mother’s house.

The array of characters that populate the hellish world of Beau is Afraid seems to serve solely to antagonize Beau. There are the aforementioned homeless people who trash his home (one of them being a naked man who runs around stabbing people), but also a slew of other characters: a devilish teenage girl who forces Beau to watch her chug a bucket of paint; an old veteran strapped with guns, grenades, and knives who chases Beau through a forest; an unrelenting lawyer who constantly scolds Beau for not arriving at his mother’s funeral soon enough; and, of course, Beau’s mother, Mona, who is depicted as the villain of the story.

It is the relationship between Beau and his mother that provides much of the context for Beau’s condition. She is overbearing, manipulative, and smothering—traits that appear to have ruined Beau in his formative years. Unfortunately, the trope that the film is built upon lacks real meat; the trauma of Mona’s parenting is all implied (told mostly through flashbacks), yet the film seems to insist that she is entirely to blame for Beau’s undefined mental illness. This is emblematic of one of Beau is Afraid’s greatest faults: despite being an examination of Beau’s inner psyche, Beau himself remains an underdeveloped anomaly. The film follows Beau for the entirety of its three-hour runtime, yet he does not really do anything; everything happens to him, and all he can do is watch, wide-eyed and crying. While Phoenix effectively portrays this incessant distress, he imbues Beau with little else, resulting in a character devoid of life. We see Beau’s fear, but we do not see any of the other emotions that make him a person. We see his suffering, but we are not sure why we are supposed to care.

The final scene of Beau is Afraid is reminiscent of that of Aster’s horror masterpiece Midsommar; an act of abrupt, starkly comedic violence serves as a stamp of closure to a dense, imagery-heavy film. It is a film that demands a reaction—hypnotically evocative, intertwining the viewer with the scenes unfolding onscreen through its hefty themes and long runtime. Regardless, viewers leave the movie with a range of emotions: dumbfounded at its absurdity, scarred by its trauma, or frustrated by its extensive runtime. Beau is Afraid succeeds artistically in its utilization of loose form in an intense depiction of anxiety and fear, but there remains a time limit for how long a film can revel in chaos, especially when it fails to develop the characters, relationships, and plot points that would otherwise ground it. There comes a point when intriguing ambiguity turns frustrating, when evocative imagery turns outright disturbing, and when exhilarating absurdity turns exhausting. This point is reached with an hour and change left in the film.

Beau is Afraid is a film one endures, but its method is warranted; the portrait of fear that the film paints is—while exaggerated—a very human one. Beau is unlikable and extremely underdeveloped, but the emotions his journey strives to convey are universal—for such an outlandish, uncomfortable film, it is unsettling how much of it is relatable. Beau is Afraid takes an unworldly acid trip on a warped path of trauma, yet within it are elements of worldly universal truths. Beau is Afraid is thought-provoking, dense, and frustrating—the kind of movie you only need to watch once, and maybe not one you’d choose for a first date.