Beau is Afraid is haunting, downright painful to watch, and will have you questioning your sanity. Despite that, the film is epic in scope, masterfully directed by Ari Aster and impossible to look away from.
The film, written and directed by Ari Aster, centers around Beau Wasserman, the son of a wealthy businesswoman who raised him without a father. Beau suffers from extreme anxiety and he is placed in a world that is his own personal hell. One part of Homer’s Oddesy and equal parts of The Truman Show and a Kaufman-esque nightmare, Beau is Afraid subjects the viewer to negative imagery and violence. As Beau is late for his flight to see his mother, Beau takes his medication and sets out to make his way to his mother’s estate, but finds himself in a series of increasingly bizarre and surreal situations, one worse than the other.
Ari Aster will either be considered at his absolute best or absolute worst in this film. Perhaps, both can be true at the same time. At first, the film seems to portray a darkly comic take on anxiety and the absurdity of modern life. Beau’s panic attacks and struggles to maintain his composure in the face of constant adversity are both harrowing and hilarious in the first act. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that this is not just a film about anxiety, but a descent into madness and a nightmare come to life. By the end, it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction, reality from an anxiety-ridden dream. Aster was a bit overindulgent with the three-hour run time, but it mostly worked.
Beau is Afraid’s greatest strength is its use of surreal and dreamlike imagery. From the deranged intruder hiding in the ceiling to the secret in the attack, the film is full of shocking and unexpected moments that will stay with you long after the credits roll. Not all of these moments work. The attic scene, undoubtedly the most outlandish part of the film, can be hit-or-miss depending on how you view the film’s theme. For me, this scene felt unneeded and undercut an otherwise nightmarishly slow-burn plot.
The absolute standout aspect of the film is its lead performance. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a haunting and vulnerable performance as Beau, capturing the character’s fear and desperation in a way that is both relatable and terrifying. There can be some similarities to his role as Arthur Fleck in 2019’s Joker, which won a slew of awards but Beau feels hopeless. Where Fleck turned into the Joker to deal with his pain and trauma, Beau is defenseless, helpless, and a victim of the world around him at every step. As each plot twist unravels, you are left feeling as afraid as the character himself. The supporting cast is equally impressive, with standout performances from Patti LuPone as Mona, the overbearing and manipulative mother, and Armen Nahapetian as young Beau.
Beau is Afraid is not without its flaws though. The film’s pacing can feel slow, and some of the more surreal moments can take audiences out of the film. Additionally, the film’s climax did not feel nearly as polished or strong as the first two acts.
Overall, Beau is Afraid is a challenging and thought-provoking film that defies expectations and similarities to the director’s previous work. It is a film that might leave you with more questions than answers and will have you questioning the point you long after you leave the theater. This film will be divisive for audiences but can be summed up with one quote from Seinfeld; “a loathsome, offensive brute, yet I can’t look away.”