REVIEW: ‘Beau is Afraid’ (2023) Is A Fever-Dream Odyssey Through Trauma

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Ari Aster has unleashed upon the world an entirely new kind of movie-going experience with Beau is Afraid. It’s hard to believe that it’s only Aster’s third feature film because he has managed to carve out a unique and distinct style while ensuring none of his movies are similar to the last. Not only is Beau is Afraid unlike Midsommar or Hereditary, it’s unlike any movie you’ve ever seen. It’s a polarizing thrill ride that will disgust you, make you laugh, and likely bring up some repressed memories. Attempting to dissect and attach a logical meaning to the film is an impossibly subjective task— every set of eyes will see this movie differently. One thing about Beau is Afraid is for sure; it’s an absurdist allegory for facing your deepest traumas. 

Joaquin Phoenix gives a heavyweight performance as Beau Wassermann, a reclusive and paranoid man whose world revolves entirely around fear. His plan to visit his mother becomes a series of bizarre vignettes that tasks him with confronting his worst nightmares head-on. A nightmare to Beau, however, is a non-stop laugh-riot to the audience. Unlike Aster’s previous films, this is even funnier than the average comedy released nowadays. The movie reaches its comedic peak when Beau lands in the care of Roger and Grace, played by Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan, respectively. Their colourful theatrics combined with Beau’s despondent fragility make for the most entertaining dynamic. Sprinkled throughout are little gems of hilarity, including moments with a bucket of paint, Beau in a bathtub, and the song ‘Always Be My Baby’ by Mariah Carey. The entire first half is singularly excellent; equal parts disturbing, amusing, and captivating. The surrealist visuals and production design, supporting cast, and score by Bobby Krlic are all top-notch. When it’s good, it’s really good. The sore thumb of it all is the overly long runtime; if a solid forty minutes of phallic-related jokes were cut out, the movie would be near perfect. The three-hour-long journey just gives the film too much space to fail.

Beau and a couple sit across a glass table adorned with roast vegetables, holding hands as though in prayer
Image Courtesy of A24

Aster uses the last stretch of the film to double down on the metaphors for hating his mother— but metaphors only work when they are sufficiently abstracted. Most directors, especially auteurs, use their art to express that which they cannot personally verbalize. Filmmaking is an inherently self-indulgent medium, to a point. In Hereditary, Aster successfully injected the theme of mommy issues into the story with a nuanced implication. In Beau is Afraid, however, the portrayal of the toxic mother-son relationship becomes glib and shallow. Aster hits the same one note repeatedly without going any deeper. The irony is layered; this tale of a man finally facing his childhood trauma is written by a man who can’t actually face his own. Despite Aster not being able to access an emotional nucleus, Beau’s story is not made any less heartbreaking. There’s no question that he’s a victim of unrelenting abuse from his narcissistic mother. It’s clear from the start that his adverse experiences have never left him; he spends every waking minute of his life trying to live up to his mom’s expectations. When the Kaufman-slash-Shyamalan twist is revealed, the sympathy you’re supposed to feel for Beau is suddenly palpable and agonizing. 

If you compare this to Aster’s first attempt, his 2011 short film Beau, the heights he has now reached are both remarkable and admirable. Making an entirely original film that is ambitious, compelling, and shocking is praiseworthy in itself. Whether it lands or not, Aster deserves credit for his willingness to be polarizing in today’s climate, where most directors choose to play it safe. It shows passion as well as a strict refusal to be ordinary. He’s okay with alienating a larger audience because he knows those that get it, get it. The few shortcomings in Beau is Afraid are equalized by Aster’s own capability of shaking up the world of cinema, where appealing to a specific demographic who will find it painfully relatable may prove more satisfying than becoming a mainstream success.

Dir: Ari Aster
Prod: Lars Knudsen, Ari Aster
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti Lupone, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Parker Posey
Release Date: April 21 2023