“Beau is Afraid”: A Movie Designed to Break Your Brain

Ari Aster had already made waves in the horror community with his back to back films Hereditary and Midsommar in 2018/2019.  Often lumped with “elevated horror” (which is admittedly a loaded term), there’s no denying that his films struck a chord as they were praised by both horror fans, as well as critics.

Already having demonstrated his ability to unsettle, disturb, and use horror as a metaphor for trauma, Aster’s latest film Beau is Afraid takes all of these concepts and runs with them further than we’ve ever seen.  Horror films have always been meant to scare, but never have I seen a film so devoted to making its audience so uncomfortable.

3 Hour Nightmare
The film follows Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) as he tries to travel back home for his mother’s funeral.  Struggling with anxiety, depression, and countless other phobias and issues, Beau’s world is an incredibly harsh one.  The very street he lives on is constantly in a state of chaos, with one vagrant violently charging at him every time he attempts to come home to his apartment.

There’s even one point where everyone from the street storms his apartment.  Between this and scenes of seemingly friendly characters turning on him in an instant it serves as a reminder that we the audience aren’t seeing the world as it truly is.  Rather, we’re seeing the world as perceived by Beau.

It almost lulls you into thinking it’s going to be a “normal” movie, but even that sequence devolves into anxiety-ridden chaos.

Ari Aster’s goal was to make a 3 hour nightmare and he very much succeeded at that.  These aren’t literal threats, but for someone like Beau they feel just as real.  The amygdala in our brain perceives threats and protects us from them.  But for someone with extreme anxiety, a tense social situation can trigger the same fight or flight response as if we were in physical danger for our lives.

And in this cinematic experiment of his, Aster holds absolutely nothing back.  IMDB lists the film’s genres as Comedy, Drama, and Horror, and that’s a pretty accurate description.  You really have no idea where a scene is going to go, or what absurd over the top thing will befall Beau.  Some make you cringe, some make you laugh, and the very best ones make you do both.

Narrative vs. Surrealism
One of the most important things to remember about this movie is to not expect a typical or linear story.  Hereditary and Midsommar definitely had more defined plots with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Beau is Afraid sort of just goes on and on, shifting from different locations and settings.  In a way it almost feels styled more like a novel than a film.

It even becomes partially animated at one point.

This approach isn’t better or worse, just different.  In terms of relative narrative and surrealism, it’s almost on point with something like 2017’s Mother! Although Beau is Afraid feels less pretentious.  Point being, this is a film not for the casual moviegoer, as was evidenced by two elderly women in attendance at the screening I went to.

They went in expecting a straightforward horror film with elements of comedy, but 20 minutes in, all they were doing was complaining about how it made no sense.  To be fair, it wasn’t at all what they expected.  But their talking during the entire movie was definitely not warranted to others like myself who were actually trying to watch it.

But their response is indicative of how general audiences received it, much like how they did Skinamarink earlier this year.  Both movies were far more experimental than audiences expected, and while general audiences weren’t too keen on them, horror fans who did enjoy them can’t really hold that against the general audiences.

Embodiment of Fear
At its core, Beau is Afraid is about fear, and the role it plays in childhood trauma. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Beau’s mother takes the cake when it comes to overbearing parents.  And if you in any way relate to him or his relationship with her, I’m truly sorry you had to go through that.

There’s very clear issues coming from her end, but she makes his relationship with her about how much he can do for her, and how much better he can make her feel rather than being nurturing. The result is an adult Beau that barely knows how to make a simple decision, and that perceives everything around him as a threat.

The flashbacks show us a tragic story that’s also told in a surrealist perspective, as that’s how Beau is remembering it.

Again, not trying to get too into spoilers, but there’s one scene in particular in which Beau almost feels like he’s on trial for every single transgression he’s ever committed in his life, most of whom are times he didn’t kiss his mother’s ass as much as he should have.  And in a way, that’s very relatable as who among us hasn’t agonized in our head about what we should or shouldn’t have done or said?

Narratively, Beau is Afraid is all over the place, but thematically it’s incredibly direct and concise.  It’s definitely not a movie for everyone, but for those who can relate to Beau’s constant fears and anxieties (especially in this post-pandemic world), it can be incredibly cathartic.  Even if almost every scene is designed to make you uncomfortable.

What did you think of Beau is Afraid?  What is your favorite Ari Aster movie? Let us know in the comments!

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