Writer and director Ari Aster re-establishes himself as one of the best living filmmakers with “Beau Is Afraid.” Released widely on April 21, 2023, “Beau Is Afraid” tells the story of Beau, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as he tries to get to his mother’s (Patti LuPone) house after her sudden death. This surreal, tragicomedy horror confronts the audience with questions about fear, family and guilt and does not seek to provide answers.
As a huge fan of Aster’s previous films, “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” I went into the theater knowing that “Beau Is Afraid” would be emotionally challenging—and it certainly is. From the very beginning, what we see on screen is a visual representation of what it is like to live with anxiety. Everywhere Beau looks there is danger; he cannot leave his apartment without being subjected to murderers, beggars and dead bodies. It makes sense why he would be living in a state of constant anxiety, and it does not help that his mother is passive aggressive toward him and makes him feel guilty for circumstances out of his control. Still, when he finds out that she has died a gruesome death, he is weaker than ever.
That is just the beginning. To be honest, no matter how much I love a director, sitting down to watch a movie for three hours feels like a lot to ask of me. But this movie had my attention and love from the start. As someone who has anxiety, I thought that Aster’s choice to put Beau in a world that is so bleak and terrifying was a great way to communicate the character’s state of mind to the audience while also having an element of horror. Additionally, while the film does evoke anxiety, there are comedic undertones that help the viewer make it through.
On Beau’s journey throughout the film, the sources of his anxiety and strained relationship with his mother are revealed. The younger version of his mother is played by Zoe Lister-Jones, who steals the screen in every scene she is in. The moments between her and young Beau are extremely impactful because they do not reveal an abusive or necessarily abnormal relationship, but rather the codependency between the mother and son.
It is also worth noting that Phoenix is perfect for the role of Beau. His performance captures the character’s cowardice and anxiety, but also his softness and innermost desires. He plays the role with empathy, vulnerability and just the right amount of humor. Phoenix’s portrayal of Beau definitely deserves to be in the running for the best performance of the year.
LuPone gives an impressive performance as well. A scene toward the end of the film allowed her to put her skills on display through a biting monologue that is unforgettable. She was the perfect choice for Beau’s mother.
I have barely scratched the surface of this movie. I could write for hours about the couple, Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane), that Beau stays with and their grief for their deceased son, who Beau seems lined up to replace; I could also write about the questions surrounding Beau’s father, or about the love-interest Elaine (Parker Posey, older; Julia Antonelli, younger). There is simply too much for me to cover it all in one review, and that is what I love about it.
This is a movie told in hints, symbols and metaphors. There is even a long sequence that brings in beautiful animation for the scenery. I thoroughly enjoyed that part because it added to the surrealism of the movie. The whole movie really reminded me of director David Lynch and his work; for example, “Mulholland Drive” and “Wild at Heart.” “Beau Is Afraid” evokes the same disorienting feelings those films do. It is like being in a dream or a nightmare: there is a story, but there are missing pieces and unexplainable happenings.
In the end, everyone who sees this film will leave with different interpretations and ideas. Nothing that is seen on the screen can necessarily be believed in “Beau is Afraid.” It is up to the viewer to decode truth from lie, fact from fiction, dream from reality. It is definitely not for everyone, but it is perfect for those like me who enjoy difficult and complex media.