You simply can’t hate how self-assured Ari Aster feels about his cinematic language — or that’s what you’d have thought after Hereditaryand Midsommar. But with Beau Is Afraid, it seems as if A24 threw a fat cheque at Aster to send him to therapy but instead, he made a movie with Joaquin Phoenix. In his third film, Aster attempts to bewitch you with a pixel-perfect rendering of what feels like a three-hour panic attack that worsens every second. The curtain raiser to this world is a long, gruelling stretch where everyday anxieties get heightened that ends with our protagonist being informed of how a chandelier fell on his mother, evaporating her head; in retrospect, this was Aster’s humble attempt at easing you in.
Beau Wassermann (Joaquin), a middle-aged man suffering from depression and acute anxiety, living in a grungy degenerate neighbourhood with a corpse in the middle of the intersection that nobody bothers about, is the one facing a series of extremely panic-inducing mishaps as he tries to catch a flight to his mom. The most plausible of these afflictions is a neighbour who keeps sliding in notes asking the quiet Beau to keep the music down; everything that follows is built with the fabric of a fever dream realised.
Be it how Joaquin embodies a child living in a man’s body or how the seemingly-dystopian setting of the neighbourhood makes you question its seriousness, there’s plenty to say that we are witnessing events that are happening to a child — and that’s how Beau’s mother Mona Wassermann (Patti LuPone) will always see him even when he is having sex with a woman. The very first shot of the film shows the horror of birth from the perspective of the infant, and the neighbourhood and its vile inhabitants at once are the transgressions of society from the eyes of a child. Or they are manifestations of fears that a mother inadvertently instils — like being thrust into a world where you should have water after a tablet or that you shouldn’t leave your keys on the door even for a second. If you leave your apartment gate open, you will let strangers inside.
Beau Is Afraid (English)
Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan
Runtime: 178 minutes
Storyline: A man suffering from acute anxiety and depression has to make it back home to the funeral of his dead mother
The whole of Beau Is Afraid can be dissected into four long stretches, and Beau’s journey after the death of his mother (first stretch) feels like that of a child lost in the system. When a doting couple, Roger (Nathan Lane) and Grace (Amy Ryan), rescue Beau from a Birthday Boy Stab Man (a psychopathic naked white man who can be identified by his circumcised penis), Beau becomes a foster child meant to replace the son they lost. Their daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers), quite like any over-possessive girl whose bedroom is taken over by an uninvited guest, becomes the new anxiety-inducing nuisance to battle — a particular scene where she forces him to smoke weed is particularly tense. But Beau must reach his mother’s funeral somehow.
Where things get quite tricky is when you realise that all of the above can be manifestations of his guilt and his mother’s accusation of his self-centredness — Beau is so consumed in his own self that his mother thinks he would have cared only about himself even when he tore open out of her womb. The film, shockingly, is about a disruptive, Oedipal relationship with a monstrous maternal figure who — in a hypnotic monologue wonderfully enacted by Zoe Lister-Jones (playing the younger Mona) — lies to her child that he’d die if he orgasms just like how his father and grandfather did. Beau Is Afraid is the most intense dark joke that has been put on screen and it’s equally silly, funny, and disturbing to think about. If you care to see only the pointlessness of some of its repetitive eccentricities, you would look at it as a silly joke. If you are patient with the enveloping screenplay, you would revel in its attempts to evoke the feeling of having heard joke that can’t be laughed at.
Yes, Aster’s signature cinematic flourishes are intact in many places. If those initial doses of anxiety take you to the peak of where Midsommar left you, a peculiar stretch set around a local theatre troupe in the woods is breathtakingly haunting. Aster seems to critique the false sense of hope that is propagated, especially through art forms like theatre and movies, while also questioning the point of existence and establishing a flimsy thread on how Beau misses a father figure and wishes to have a family on his own. Joaquin, meanwhile, goes bonkers as Beau and it’s even more impressive when you consider how limited the range of what he can do here is.
There’s a chance that watching a film made with two tonal contrasts — of a Kafkaesque dark comedy with a penis monster being shown as a father figure and a highly self-indulgent surreal drama about a mother and a son — can make this a rare film that gets terribly polarising reactions. That and the chance of many emotionally giving up to the overwhelming laments of a son suffering under the shadow of a monster. It’s like having to taste a difficult cough syrup for over three hours; some might feel better after one, some might need the full dose, while some may not even have a cough.
Aster himself may never make a film like Beau Is Afraid again even if he intends to. But that you struggle to shake off the film’s hold over your attention and keep pondering over its many impressive stretches, hours after its climax, is perhaps the only symptom of how you would remember it.
Beau Is Afraid is currently running in theatres