Beau is Afraid
May 13th, Google search results for Beau Is Afraid—
“People also ask: ‘What is Beau afraid of?’”
If there’s one thing Ari Aster’s new pitch black comedy is eager to do, it’s answer this question. The over-three-hour-long odyssey is a gleefully surreal, wildly self-indulgent examination of Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), a mama’s boy caught up in a trippy maze of psychological anguish. It’s a tapestry of allusions and formal experiments. A twisted play on the Book of Job by way of Camus’s L’Étranger—“My mother died today,” “Why died I not from the womb?”
The film deploys a wry sense of humor, yet A Serious Man Beau is not. The film’s inability to truly plumb Camus’s concept of the Absurd is less a product of Beau’s inability to express his feelings than Aster’s own reticence to dig into psychology deeper than an overblown Oedipus Complex. In Aster’s words, Beau is “a loser,” and, in many ways, Beau gets what’s cosmically coming to him. Unfortunately, this choice renders his tragicomic story less thematically compelling than those of Aster’s prior two films. Nevertheless, relentless, schadenfreude-driven humor makes for a wickedly entertaining viewing experience.
The film’s premise is simple: what begins as a trip home for the weekend slowly crumbles into a Quixotic descent into hell, After Hours–style. After his keys and suitcase are stolen, Beau calls his mo.ther, dull panic written all over his face. Thus begins the film’s journey into a familiar parental horror story as Beau’s own Mommie Dearest, Mona Wassermann (Patti LuPone and, in flashbacks, Zoe Lister-Jones), deftly maneuvers her hapless son into promising to come home, threat of home invasion be damned. The travails that follow take Beau on a tour of his own neuroses, played out everywhere from antiseptic suburban sprawl to an enchanted forest straight out of a fairytale in the film’s lushest, most visually arresting sequence.
So—what is Beau afraid of?
From birth, Beau’s world is one of mundane and disjointed events made terrifying and inexplicable by his lack of control over them. He swallows mouthwash, he crosses the street, he loses his keys, he thinks he’s been poisoned, he sprints through a warzone, he finds his apartment overrun by madmen. When you have anxiety, Aster informs us, a five-cent shortfall on a bottle of water can feel like a death sentence. But the deadpan delivery is also hilarious. Watching these hallucinatory events charge inexorably forward, the lines between art cinema and Freddy Got Fingered begin to blur (as if they weren’t already). Beau is plagued by episodic dalliances with the cosmically ridiculous. A neighbor insists Beau is playing his music too loudly, yet a deafening silence rings through his apartment. A naked man runs through the streets stabbing pedestrians at random and screaming, “Fuck you!”
Phoenix’s performance, somewhere between Arthur Fleck and Doc Sportello, is a study of agonized silences, gasping half-articulated thoughts, and stunned exclamations: “Why are you doing this to me?” The vast tapestry of supporting characters—who revel in Beau’s suffering as much as Aster himself does—help smooth the film’s uneven pacing (it begins propulsively before becoming shambolic in its final hour). Nathan Lane and Kylie Rogers shine as two members of a dysfunctional family who struggle to cope with the death of their son by conceiving of politely coercive kidnapping plots. Rogers is a breakout, bullying Beau into smoking mystery drugs and rolling her eyes with sardonic, adolescent aplomb. Even after the film’s energy begins to dissipate, there is much to be enjoyed: Parker Posey’s brief role as Beau’s childhood sweetheart, for example, is hysterical. And one notable scene in his mother’s attic—ostensibly the heart of all of his fears—is both sophomoric and undeniable. Spoiler: having a giant penis monster for a Freudian father figure perfectly encapsulates this film’s sense of humor and its thematic limits.
As Beau prepares for his flight to see his mother, his therapist asks, “How do you feel?” He has no response, but his therapist nevertheless neatly jots one down: “Guilty.” And guilt does drive Beau cringingly forward—mentally kicking and screaming—deep into a world he can’t bring himself to understand or investigate. Beau is afraid of everything, and Aster throws everything at the wall to tell us so. Under the situational maximalism and broad comedy, though, there is little thematic nuance or cohesion. The more salient question, then, is really, “Why is Beau afraid?” And the answers—beyond the simplistic note jotted down on his therapist’s pad (“guilty”)—are less forthcoming.
For Aster, the challenge of answering this question seems to be a gendered one. Beau is Afraid shares many themes with the director’s previous films, Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), particularly intergenerational trauma and the myriad ways the ravages of misogynist gendered expectations create violent outcomes for everyone. Yet where the prior films turn their gazes towards a complex—and, eventually, iconic—female character, Beau’s mother haunts this film’s margins. She never comes fully alive—a mere shadow of Annie (Toni Collette’s tortured matriarch in Hereditary). In Hereditary, Annie herself is a product of an unhinged maternal figure whose supernatural ambitions (like Annie’s professional ones) take her outside the bounds of the traditional nuclear family. In this context, the parallels between the two women’s lives make for a complex meditation on maternity grounded in gendered realities for women, regardless of their heightened supernatural manifestations. Similarly in Midsommar, Florence Pugh’s Dani is riddled with unresolved and unshakable anxieties, downing fistfuls of pills to stave off panic attacks in the wake of her parents’ sudden, senseless deaths. These anxieties, though, are colored by the gendered world around her: she is depicted as clingy by her boyfriend’s friends, overly emotional by her boyfriend himself. Dani is eventually able to channel her fear and loathing into a feminine Neo-Pagan community, monstrous though it may be, creating a compelling arc for her character. Annie’s death may be gruesome, but her strength and dynamism are the engine of the film. Both are forces to be reckoned with, making modern horror icons of both actresses, in part because their fear of the world around them is both fascinating and familiar.
The same can’t be said for Aster’s men—Beau included. Christian (Dani’s boyfriend in Midsommar) and Peter (Annie’s son in Hereditary) are subjected to much worse fates than their mothers and girlfriends. These male characters are also products of a violently gendered system; they are made passive and guilty by the roles they are forced into as the partners and children of strong women. Their fears (a tangle of contradictory sexism) are more diffused even if they, too, feel familiar: an internalized self-hatred of their sex—with all the nuance of a giant penis monster in the attic. Rather than rise to a perverse form of anarchistic agency, the culpability these men feel for the misogynist system renders them spiritually and physically impotent, martyred for the sins of heteromasculinity at the altar of the monstrous feminine. Beau, then, embodies these same tropes, but with the added burden of holding up a three-hour runtime on his own despite his fundamental flaw being an inability to act. These anxieties are well drawn and incredibly funny, but as the hours pass, we begin to feel the shallowness of the psychology beneath them. The troubled masculinity Beau represents proves more compelling material for Aster as a counterpoint to a woman’s story, as in Hereditary and Midsommar, than as a primary concern.
Ultimately, Beau’s psychic journey through his own guilt and fear proves fruitless for him, too. There is no recourse for this type of male character but to self-destruct when faced with the paradoxical untenability of internalized misogyny and an awareness of same. Beau fears his mother and the shadows of her he sees in women in general, cringing away from angsty teenage girls and elfen forest maidens with the same knee jerk shame and deference. At the same time, he hates himself for it, virtually pulling his hair out in inarticulate frustration over the smallest of these interactions. Because of this, he can’t help but feel somewhat justified in his loathing, and the specter of violence hangs over him like a pall—or a fetal veil, cast over him at birth (“why died I not from the womb?”). Through Beau, Aster’s film paints a portrait of frustrated, doomed masculinity that, in failing to present a nuanced commentary, ironically becomes a cinematic recreation of the psychic drama at hand. Aster, like his characters, puts Beau on trial, cross-examines him, and finds him, once more, “guilty.”