‘Beau Is Afraid’ Is Ari Aster At His Funniest And Most Neurotic [Review]

Beau Is Afraid

Ari Aster’s name has become synonymous with the contemporary wave of horror films that are often labeled “elevated horror”. With his feature film debut Hereditary, followed by Midsommar, Aster gave us a glimpse into the inner workings of his strange mind albeit through relatively conventional means. His stories, while disturbing, still worked within well-established genre tropes. Now, he’s breaking from the mold and is unleashing a deluge of cacophonous neuroses with his new film Beau Is Afraid. Unlike anything the director has done before, his third feature film is not a horror movie in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s a hilarious, tense, and all-around transformative experience that’ll melt your brain into a Joaquin Phoenix-shaped puddle.

Based on his short film Beau starring Billy Mayo, Aster expanded the proof-of-concept into a three-hour-long odyssey through one man’s own mental health nightmare and fraught relationship with his mother. The titular Beau, played by an always phenomenal Joaquin Phoenix, is the epitome of a sad, scared little man. Dressed in baggy jeans and a frumpy shirt with a head of dwindling salt and pepper hair, he’s terrified of everything and the world around him reflects just that. Criminals run rampant in the street, stabbing people at random, while corpses lay untouched in front of dilapidated apartment buildings that’ve plastered their walls with signs about a brown recluse spider infestation.

Does that all sound ridiculous and hyper-specific? Welcome to the world of Beau Is Afraid. It’s like Wes Anderson took some bad acid and decided to confront the traumas of his past by replacing his twee sensibilities with a penchant for high-brow dick jokes and an Oedipal complex. Here, Aster has crafted his own bizarre world, full of porn stores called Erectus Ejectus, bizarre band posters, strange pharmaceuticals, and an inability to process emotions in a way that would be described as human. Aster is our deranged guide through the inner workings of both his own brain and Beau’s, leading us on this deranged hero’s journey as Beau is just trying to visit his mom.

Oh yeah, that’s the basic conceit of Beau Is Afraid: Beau is simply trying to go home to see his overbearing mom, played by the legendary Patti LuPone. Of course, this movie is so much more than that. But trying to explain deeper is futile. This is a film that must be experienced. And that’s really what Aster has crafted here: a nightmarish sensory experience that embeds itself like glass shards in your brain. As we follow Beau deeper into the proverbial heart of darkness, we fall deeper into his psyche, a chaotic place shaped by an abusive mother and a heart-breaking lack of any semblance of self-confidence.

Beau Is Afraid is as much Phoenix’s film as it is Aster’s. He takes on a withered, almost pathetic persona as he mumbles and whimpers his way through each absurd scenario. Phoenix’s performance is incredibly frustrating, which here is a positive thing, as you constantly want to shake him by the shoulders and beg him to claim some tiny sprinkle of agency in his life. He is infuriating yet sympathetic, which is exactly what he needs to be—he’s just bearable enough to be a compelling form of anti-hero.

While Phoenix dominates the frame, the supporting cast shines just as bright, from Patti LuPone as his domineering mother to Nathan Lane as the slightly too-positive Roger who speaks like an AI-generated father figure from a wholesome sitcom. No performance feels natural whatsoever, with Lane, Amy Ryan, and Parker Posey playing characters who are playing characters who are really bad at their jobs. Watching that be achieved so seamlessly without overacting is a fascinating and enthralling experience.

Aster’s script paired with these performances keeps Beau Is Afraid moving at an almost-breakneck pace, so don’t let the three-hour runtime deter you. This film is never ever boring to the point that it’s borderline overwhelming as colors, noises, people, and things are non-stop thrown at the screen. Just when Aster slows down to a beautifully animated sequence where we retreat into Beau’s fantasy, Aster steps on the gas and hurls us into the next nightmare situation.

Ultimately, Beau Is Afraid is perhaps one of the best representations of intrusive thoughts I’ve ever seen on screen. Everything happening is an exaggerated form of humanity, the kind of humanity you imagine if you are constantly terrified about the world around you. Beau is experiencing a series of “what ifs” as if they are actually happening. It doesn’t always make sense and feels absolutely ridiculous, especially when you’re viewing them from the outside. But Aster’s script and Phoenix’s performance make the ridiculous still seem terrifying. The scenarios may make you laugh at first but then you recoil in terror as you think just a bit longer about the situation at hand.

Fans of Aster’s feature films are in for a bit of a shock as this is nothing like what he’s done before. Beau Is Afraid is Aster at his most free and his most unhinged. He isn’t trying to construct a cohesive narrative with well-timed scares and mind-breaking gore. Here, he’s both showing himself to the world and purposefully obfuscating the full view, showing us the chaos of his mind while also only begging more questions about if this man is truly OK. The horror here isn’t in decapitations, but in the anxiety-inducing saga Aster takes us on. Between chaotic editing, a cacophonous score, and non-stop nightmare scenarios, Beau Is Afraid is authentically Aster through and through. If you’re willing, take his hand and be transported into a world of pure neurotic imagination.

Beau Is Afraid comes to theaters on April 14, 2023. For those in New York City, Beau Is Afraid is screening on Monday, April 17, 2023 with a special post-screening Q&A with Ari Aster and Martin Scorcese.



Beau Is Afraid is Ari Aster at his most free and his most unhinged. Between chaotic editing, a cacophonous score, and non-stop nightmare scenarios, Beau Is Afraid is authentically Aster through and through.



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