Beau Is Afraid is a deeply strange movie. You probably think you know that already after seeing the trailers, or just knowing it comes from Ari Aster. Hereditary and Midsommar are very weird, amidst the guttural terror they evoke. But Beau is a different beast. In some ways this feels very of a piece of those earlier movies, their uncomfortable and unsettling interactions and deep, disturbing revelations. At the same time, it’s miles and miles different; it’s an absurdist, surrealist take on everything from city living to overbearing mothers that still manages to have some true horror in its heart. I still have kind of no idea what to make of Beau Is Afraid and maybe that’s the point.
Aster clearly has some personal demons to work through, and to their credit, A24 allowed him to do that. It never once feels like the filmmaker needed to hold back or change things for audience appeasement or anything. Like all of his movies, Beau Is Afraid is not easy to watch. At a minute shy of three hours, it’s also the most arduous, but it never drags. We feel like we’ve been on a journey along with our main character. Aster has called the movie a “Jewish Lord of the Rings,” and that feels apt in a lot of ways. In other ways? Just emotional torture porn.
The movie follows Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle-aged man who lives alone in a tiny little apartment in what I can only describe as hell on earth. Though we never 100% know if what we see is true to the film or only Beau’s perception, but his city block has drug addicts and lunatics and murderers mere feet away at all times. (The latter is a nude guy whom the TV news affectionately dubs “Birthday Boy Stab Man”.) Even more than all of the hilariously awful things all around him, Beau fears visiting his mother. He’s supposed to go tomorrow, however the world seems to have conspired against him.
So much of Beau Is Afraid is this poor guy stumbling from one absolutely terrible problem to the next. After losing his keys and locking himself out of his building, he gets hit by a truck. The drivers of which are a seemingly nice couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan) who nurse him back to health. But they, like everyone Beau meets, seems oddly sinister. Beau’s paranoia grows and with it does the audience’s sense of unease. Aster has crowned himself the monarch of icky feelings, and he’s three for three. While you laugh at the escalating nightmare of Beau’s surroundings, you also tense up at what can only be the inevitable horror to follow.
And follow it does. Some truly WTF moments occur throughout, stuff that had my jaw on the floor and my hands on my face. But easily the scariest part of the move is the looming shadow of Beau’s mother. A luminary in some unknown field, the specter of Beau’s mother haunts everything in his life. We see bits of his upbringing, when she seems utterly devoted to him, but with an edge we can’t quite ascertain. When we see her in the present, she’s scarier than any Dracula or Frankenstein you might see. Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti LuPone play the character in different time periods and they are absolutely stellar, and truly terrifying.
Still, weeks later I can’t quite put my finger on why it didn’t quite work for me. Without the visceral punch of Hereditary or the folk-horror slow burn of Midsommar, we can see much more of Aster’s true intent. It’s less to tell a story and more to convey a grievance. Even the movie’s one true masterstroke—an extended fantasy sequence presented as an elaborate stage play—fades away quickly back to zany madcappery and on-the-nose metaphor. And while we definitely have the focus on familial trauma that his earlier features had, without the keening sorrow of those, we end up just watching a guy get kicked repeatedly while he’s down. It’s hard not to see the whole movie as an extended riff on Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.
Beau Is Afraid is funny, scary, profound, upsetting, bizarre, and ultimately arduous. I’d love to say I love it as more than a filmmaker taking a massive swing with the full support of a studio behind him, but I can’t. It left me feeling upset and exhausted, which I think was the goal, but it’s a journey I’m not entirely sure I needed to take.
Beau Is Afraid hits cinemas April 21.
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.