Beau is Afraid is perhaps the most polarizing film of 2023 so far, splitting critics and audience members across the board into two camps. Some think its a creative visionary tale with impactful themes, and others think its a dumpster fire that will kill the director’s career. But what about the one opinion that matters? Some nobody on YouTube with just under 500 subscribers. What’s his take on all of this?
Beau is Afraid is the latest film from director Ari Aster, the mind behind breakout A24 horror films Hereditary and Midsommar. Aster is one of my favorite directors working today. I love his style of storytelling, the way he injects real-world themes into stories of ghosts and cults, and his underlying dark humor. Beau is Afraid is his first theatrical work that I wouldn’t right out call a horror film in the traditional sense. But that doesn’t make this movie any less fucked up, believe me. The film follows a middle-aged, anxiety stricken man named Beau, who sets out on an absurd, Odyssey-like journey to get to his mom’s house. Along the way he comes across many off putting individuals as his tale becomes one of self discovery and terrifying, existential dread. Clocking in at 3 hours long and stuffed with both imaginative and nightmarish visuals, this is a movie that some people are going to love, and there are people who are going to be pissed off. So what camp am I in…I kinda love it. Would I say it’s Aster’s best…I’m not so sure. But it’s certainly his most original and unique by far. And if you’ve seen this movie and you hate it, I can totally understand. It’s a film that doesn’t give you straight answers and basically forces you to accept this weird world without much explanation. Is it all real or just a manifestation by the character? The film is never explicit in this, so if you’re looking for something more cut and dry, you’re probably not going to find it here.
That being said I loved the insane, hyper-exaggerated world Aster built here. It’s essentially if an anxiety attack was a setting, that’s this film’s world. Especially in the first part of the movie where Beau is in the city. There’s just mobs of people beating each other up, setting cars on fire, shooting each other, stabbing each other. There’s signs that just read D*ck C*ck Pu$$y F*ck. There’s a naked serial stabber called the Birthday Boy Stab Man. It’s basically what I imagine someone who’s never been to the US thinks New York is like. It’s a world that tows the line between being real and just a figment of Beau’s obsessive anxiety, but it’s not as cut and dry as that either. You’re basically on this bonkers journey with Beau and seeing everything from his point of view, and there comes a point where you just kind of have to accept everything you see. Anything, and I mean anything is possible in this world.
But let’s talk about the titular man who is afraid. Beau is played by Joaquin Phoenix, one of my favorite actors of all time, and he is just a mess in this. Beau is more than just scared. He’s anxious, depressed, paranoid, and worst of all…horny. He’s a great catalyst for us to experience this bizarre world we’re thrown in, played maniacally well by Phoenix. This man just gets continually beat down as he travels from one strange setting to the next, not only coming face to face with the terrors of the physical world, but the years of mental torment he’s endured. His journey is an odd yet relatable one, as there’s some twisted truth to the overexaggerated horrors he has to endure. Something as simple as telling your mom you aren’t going to make it because you’ve been robbed is made more stressful than it needs to be thanks to Phoenix’s performance.
The same goes for the rest of the cast too. There’s a ton of little performances that we only get to enjoy for a short time, but most of them are so enigmatic that they leave a pretty big impact. Patti Lupone, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Zoe-Lister Jones and Richard Kind all give relatively bite-sized performances that manage to be scene stealers at one point or another. Bill Hader even gets a nice little blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. I can’t go into the performances too much without treading into spoiler territory, but I think Nathan Lane was probably the standout for me. His character is so happy-go-lucky to the point where every time he opened his suburban dad mouth I was laughing.
Visually the movie is stunning to look at, from its set design, to its scene staging, to its camera movements and editing. The crafting of this world, like many of Aster’s previous films, is incredibly precise and intentional. While many of his past films are littered with little hints and references towards things to come, I didn’t really get the sense of that here. Granted there’s so much to take in that it was hard to analyze every little detail, but even still there’s so many little jokes to catch. The entire movie looks great but there’s one sequence in particular that is just so amazing. It’s styled after a pop-up book, with paper grass, trees, buildings and water, but what makes it so impressive is its integration with actual human actors. It’s a stunning few minutes that does a fantastic job at illustrating a melancholy dream of what could have been if things in Beau’s life played out differently. It really makes me want an entire film done in this style with this level of craftsmanship.
So it looks great, it’s well acted, but what is it all about? Is it more than just blue balls and mommy issues? Well, yeah, there’s actually quite a lot going on here, maybe even too much? At the heart of it all this film is about guilt and the anxiety that stems from it. Its take on guilt goes a few different ways, being something imposed on us by others and something imposed on ourselves. I’m sure everyone wrestles with guilt in some form or another, wondering if it’s been right bestowed upon them or if they’ve been manipulated into thinking they deserve it. Whether warranted or not, that dread and self-loathing that comes with it can be enough to mess you up for a lifetime, where you may never get the answers you’re looking for. This movie is kind of the same way. It doesn’t give you definitive answers to what you’ve just experienced, which may piss some people off. It’s not cut and dry or straightforward by any means, and the way it goes about covering its themes can be seen as tiring or even nonsensical. My biggest issue with the film is its pacing and how a lot of the sections in the film feel like too much of a diversion from the main plot and themes. While entertaining, it does feel like some of the sections lose sight of what we’re doing here in the first place, and their prolonged lengths can make you forget what the end goal even is. Not to say that they don’t serve a purpose, it’s just that I’m not sure the film ultimately needed all of these splinters from the main idea. Like I said, it’s three hours of absolute insanity, and while I’ve seen some refer to it as inane, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. Juvenile and crude at times? Absolutely. Sometimes it has the sense of humor of a high school boys lunch table. But the darkly absurd humor and nightmare-world scenarios all do serve a purpose one way or another. I think we may have just become accustomed to dumb humor for the sake of being dumb, but this film isn’t like that. A lot of people might not feel the same but I just love weird shit like this.
Ari Aster took a big swing here that ended up being one of the most audacious films I’ve seen in quite a while.It doesn’t all work at times and it will certainly leave a weird taste in your mouth by the end, but I’ll take more batshit films from directors with something to say any day. Will you like this film if you haven’t seen it? It really all depends on how open you are to looking deeper into the lunacy you’ll see on screen and how accepting you are of just being swept up in the madness of it all. It’s certainly not as approachable as Hereditary or Midsommar, two films which I don’t know if I can even call approachable to mainstream audiences. If you decide to give it a watch, just be prepared to be anxious, disturbed, amused, and maybe a little dumbfounded. It’s a whirlwind of a film, but it may just be my favorite new film of the year.