Beau is Afraid (2023) poster

Beau is Afraid (2023)


USA. 2023.


Director/Screenplay – Ari Aster, Producers – Ari Aster & Lars Knudsen, Photography – Pawel Pogorzelski, Music – Bobby Krlic, Visual Effects Supervisor – Louis Morin, Visual Effects – Crafty Apes (Supervisor – Remy Normand), Folks, Hybride & The Artery (Supervisor – Yuval Levy), Animation – Joaquin Cocina & Cristobal Leon, Special Effects Supervisor – Louis Craig, Prosthetic & Creature Effects – Applied Arts FX Studio, Inc., Production Design – Fiona Crombie. Production Company – A24/Square Peg.


Joaquin Phoenix (Beau Wasserman), Patti LuPone (Mona Wasserman), Amy Ryan (Grace), Nathan Lane (Roger), Kylie Rogers (Toni), Parker Posey (Elaine Bray), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Dr Jeremy Friel), Hayley Squires (Penelope), Dennis Menochet (Jeeves), Armen Nahapetian (Teen Beau), Julia Antonelli (Teen Elaine), Zoe Lister Jones (Young Mona), Richard Kind (Dr Cohen), Julian Richings (Strange Man)


Beau Wasserman is planning to leave the city to go and visit his mother when everything starts to go wrong. His keys are stolen and he is locked out as his apartment it is taken over by people partying. He calls his mother to say he will be late only for the phone to be picked up by a UPS delivery guy to inform him that his mother has been killed by a chandelier fallen on her head. Beau is then hit by a vehicle on the street. He comes around in the home of the surgeon Roger and his wife Amy who tend Beau. Beau learns that his mother’s funeral is being held up as they wait for him to arrive. Roger promises to drive Beau there the next day. However, Roger and Amy’s teenage daughter Toni is upset that Beau has been placed in her bedroom and kills herself by drinking a can of paint. Thought the killer, Beau is pursued and flees through the forest in an increasingly more surreal journey.

Beau is Afraid was the third film from Ari Aster. Aster made a surprise debut from out of nowhere five years ago with Hereditary (2018), which received great word of mouth. He then enjoyed even more success with the Folk Horror film Midsommar (2019). In additioon, Aster has also produced Dream Scenario (2023).

Aster had ridden a strong critical wave with Hereditary and Midsommar and been acclaimed as a major new directorial name and genre voice. On the other hand, Aster seemed to hit a stray ball when it came to Beau is Afraid. The film’s length and unclear, shifting nature of the narrative seemed to leave general audiences going “huh” and nobody understanding what it was about.

Beau is Afraid feels like The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) as reworked over by the Coen Brothers about the time of The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and The Big Lebowski (1998). The film is a man’s allegorical journey in search for something at the same time as the central character must experience all the miseries of modern life. It falls into a tradition of literature that dates from the 19th Century called conte cruel where characters progress through a series of nasty fates.

Much of the film follows the put upon Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) and the various misfortunes that are piled upon him. The keys to his apartment are stolen. At the same time, he has just taken a pill that might kill him if not taken with water but the water in his apartment is out and so he must make a dash across the street to the convenience store to get some bottled water – only his credit card is declined and he doesn’t have enough change. And upon returning, the phone book he left propping open the door of the apartment building to get back in is removed as all the crazies that inhabit the street invade his apartment and turn it into a party zone, while Beau is forced to spend the night on the worker’s scaffold outside the building.

Joaquin Phoenix as Beau Wasserman in Beau is Afraid (2023)
Joaquin Phoenix as the put upon Beau Wasserman

After returning to his apartment, Beau calls his mother only for the phone to be picked up by a UPS delivery driver who informs him that her head has been squished by a falling chandelier. Beau relaxes in a bath only to find a man clinging to the wall above him, who promptly falls into the bath on top of Beau. A panicking Beau flees out onto the street nude where he sees a nude serial killer (who had early been mentioned on the news) attacking a body only to have a cop pull a gun on him, thinking Beau is the killer, and he to flee only to be run down by a van. That’s only the first act and the film gets increasingly more bizarre from there as Beau is taken in by another couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan) before this goes horribly wrong as their histrionic daughter kills herself by drinking a can of paint, is pursued by a deranged ex-soldier, encounters a performing troupe in the woods and finally makes it back to the funeral – only for things to then get really bizarre.

Beau is Afraid is a frustrating film. It is especially frustrating if you come to it after watching Ari Aster’s other films. These were horror films with clearcut plots – while you could debate the meaning of them, their effect was always there in front of you. By contrast, Beau is Afraid appears to be somebody’s lifestory – whether it is Ari Aster’s autobiography might be a good question – that turns into a spiralling nightmare conte cruel where eventually what seem be the objective manifestations of inner psychological traumas spill out.

The film runs just short of three hours. Nothing that happens is exactly clear on a narrative level – we are not sure whether to read it as a realistic work or, as becomes increasingly apparent in the latter scenes, a work of Surrealism. The story often feels like three or more different films competing for your attention. The first two sections set around Beau’s apartment and his being taken in by Nathan Lane and wife could almost be taken from a Coen Brothers film. The encounter with the performing troupe in the forest where Beau is wound into the performance they put on seems a very different film that takes place on a fairytale-like level of allegory. The final sections involving Beau’s return home turn into something like a Freudian nightmare as we watch his inner neuroses spill out into the real world.

If I interpret Beau is Afraid correctly, it feels like the psychodramas of someone with a good deal of mummy issues. Everything ties back to the flashback scenes where Beau was separated from the girl he kissed as a boy. This gets visited back on him in what becomes the film’s most horrible scene where he meets Parker Posey as the now adult version of the girl. [PLOT SPOILERS] He goes to bed with her – only for the act of sex to suddenly have the effect of paralysing her. This is followed by the reappearance of his mother (Patti LuPone) who walks in, revealing that she faked her own death and proceeds to who spends nearly twenty minutes eviscerating Beau for all his shortcomings and cruelties he inflicted on her. All before the bizarre revelation of the father, the apparent root of Beau’s sexual dysfunction, as Beau is placed on trial.

(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2023 list. Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Patti LuPone), Nominee for Best Director (Ari Aster) and Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix) at this site’s Best of 2023 Awards).

Trailer here

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