Beau Is Afraid
We all agree here, unanimously, to a person, that Ari Aster is a great director with two undeniable modern horror classics to his name. And it goes without saying that A24 is a cool company that has produced many good and/or interesting movies*, and even if you weren’t into those it would be weird to have some kind of a grudge against them. Since we have always been on the same page about those things, I’m sure we also agree that it’s cool that the company now let Aster step outside of horror for a much more niche dark comedy with a budget the armchair bean-counters say they won’t be able to make back. And that it was worth every penny.
As much as I loved HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR, I actually didn’t think BEAU IS AFRAID was a sure bet for me. When I saw the trailer it looked visually impressive, but seemed to be going for a Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry type of thing. I love those two filmmakers (both together and separate), but it’s their one-of-a-kindness that makes them great. Even the best imitators of their stuff tend to feel hollow and disposable. Was Aster going to go from an original in horror to a copycat in… whatever genre this is?
When the movie first played to critics there was a funny incident where a box office/awards/muscle-selfie Youtuber guy called it “a career-killing film… what happens when studios cede full creative freedom to directors with reckless disregard for audiences outside themselves.” Of course it’s in my bones to root for a movie that outrages anti-art, movies-as-sports types who un-self-consciously type the words “full creative freedom” as a negative, so this got me a little more excited. Whatever the movie was, no matter how terrible, we could all celebrate its existence just because it bothered that particular bozo so much.
But now that I’ve seen it I’m happy to report that it’s also really fuckin good. Or at least I loved it. Joaquin Phoenix (SPACE CAMP, U TURN) stars as Beau Wasserman, a timid, mumbly man living alone in an apartment on a block that would scare off the creeps from DEATH WISH 3. He’s about to fly out to visit his mother, Mona (Patti Lupone  in the present, Zoe Lister-Jones [writer/director of THE CRAFT: LEGACY] in flashbacks), on the anniversary of his father’s death. That sounds like a normal start to a movie, but even the simple first step of going to the airport is thwarted by that thing where you leave your keys in the door for a second and they get stolen, and then you swallowed a new medication that must be taken with water but you forgot the plumbing was turned off in your building so you run across the street to get a bottle of water but while you have the door propped open dozens of scary weirdos invade your apartment and have a huge orgy which you watch all night from outside the window and the next day there’s a dead guy out front and the place is destroyed with shit smeared on the walls and a shoe penetrating your laptop screen but the water’s back on so you take a bath but then you realize there’s a sweaty, terrified guy on the ceiling above you. And also you know your mom won’t be sympathetic about all of this causing you to miss your flight. You can imagine where the plot would go from there.
A previous divisive movie this reminded me of a little was Darren Aranofsky’s mother!, because it has that feeling of a fever dream of endlessly escalating frustration. But it does switch locations several times, from the hellhole apartment to the upper middle class home of a surgeon (Nathan Lane, NUTCRACKER: THE UNTOLD STORY) and his wife (Amy Ryan, MONSTER TRUCKS) who run over Beau and decide to keep him as a patient/guest/captive, then to a forest where a troupe of nomadic self-described orphans perform experimental theater, then to his mom’s stylish modern mansion. And meanwhile his various injuries, medications and traumas send him into memories and hallucinations, raising mysteries about a childhood crush, the true identity of his father, something weird going on in the attic (just like HEREDITARY), and his belief that a heart murmur will kill him if he ever has an orgasm.
The bigger differences from mother!, though, are that its allegories don’t seem quite as cryptic, and that it’s much, much funnier. It’s a very rare and specific type of humor that’s right up my alley. Beau is this hapless sap, muttering passively at increasingly insane indignities, invasions of chaos into normalcy, and after it’s gone on for nearly 3 hours and dug further into the weeds of very ugly mother-son relationship troubles, Aster decides to throw a bone to anyone who’s bored (not me) by introducing a giant penis monster. Another really audacious bit of tonal daredevilry is when, in the midst of a long, grim stream of maternal grievance, Mona references her own mother and gestures to a comically goofy portrait on the wall. Got a big laugh in my crowd, and not just from me.
There’s another impressive joke I want to discuss, from the same section of the movie, and I will mark this paragraph as a SPOILER not just for the joke or the plot developments but for a cast member I did not know about in advance. After Beau arrives too late for a memorial service another person arrives late. To him, holy shit, it’s Elaine, his first and only love from when he was a teenager. To us holy shit, it’s Parker Posey, the undisputed queen of ‘90s indie cinema, as well as co-star with Triple-H in BLADE: TRINITY and INSIDE OUT. I won’t detail their strange interactions except to say that they end up in bed together and there’s a shot of her naked on top of him, and I will just speak honestly as a heterosexual male of a specific age, that my thought process went like this:
Whoah, is that really—
[eyes scan down far enough to notice Beau’s enormous balls, which were referenced in a seeming non-sequitur conversation much earlier]
[choking on laughter about balls]
I can’t think of another scene to use that exact type of whiplash. It’s another great cinematic achievement for the anti-sex scene people to consider, as well as for the people who used to argue with me that all the humor I loved in HEREDITARY was me laughing at a very serious movie by a humorless pretentious guy. (No hard feelings but I was right, okay?)
BEAU is about many things. Obviously the title refers to fear. The world of the movie is an expressionistic depiction of things he’s afraid of, from regular stress about the craziness of the modern world, to the challenges of shit that life throws at you on a bad day, to specific anxieties he’s trying to address with his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson, RED HOOK SUMMER). To me the funniest stuff is his apocalyptic vision of city life as a war zone where he’s constantly under attack by homeless mentally ill people, some with face tattoos, some naked. It’s the closest thing to a politically loaded subject in the movie, I think, because it mirrors how Republicans have been imagining “Democrat cities” in recent years as they exacerbate the housing, addiction and mental healthcare crises by empowering corporations, removing regulations, defunding social services, demonizing the victims, and spending money that should be spent to help them on cops who harass, beat, and kill them and pretend not to know why that doesn’t make anyone’s lives better.
I didn’t take the movie to be saying anything about that. I think this is just how a guy raised by Beau’s mom would see the city. But there’s an intense scene early on where Beau has been scared out of his bathtub into the street by an intruder (Peter Seaborne), and a nervous cop (Michael Esper, THE DROP, RESURRECTION) almost shoots him, mistaking him for a neighborhood terror (Bradley Fisher, “Stage Manager,” one episode of Perfect Strangers) dubbed “The Birthday Boy Stab Man” by the media. Easy mix up, since Beau is another troubled guy having an episode while naked in the street. But we know Beau is a person who needs help, not a monster that needs to be put down, and should remember that the same is true of the other guy.
By the way, in the suburbs and even the woods he’s in just as much danger, bullied by a drugged out teenage girl named Toni (Kylie Rogers, COLLATERAL BEAUTY) and chased by a PTSD-suffering vet named Jeeves (Denis Menochet, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS). And the most horrific part of the movie is Beau’s CEO mother, a real puzzle box of issues and cruelties, a crushing force even when she’s just on the phone not talking, tormenting her son with extravagantly long pauses and heartless non-responses to his pleas for motherly sympathy, support, or advice.
It would be hard to see this and not wonder what’s up with Aster and his mom. I hesitated to find out, but Vulture looked into the subject and determined that he appears to have a good relationship with his mom, a poet who explores similarly dark themes in her work. Strange.
Some have claimed that the movie is 3 hours long, which is total bullshit, it’s actually only 2 hours and 59 minutes. Be happy – Aster originally threatened 4 hours. I know some people are never not gonna be scared off by a long running time like that, as is their right, and in many cases their loss. I won’t defend it except to say that it worked for me as a prolonged (in a good way) experience. There’s possibly even a joke about it here, as (HUGE END SPOILER I SUPPOSE) the finale has Beau on trial in a stadium filled with water. He’s in a boat and it flips over and before he’s even finished drowning we can see many people filing for the exits.
So my impression that this would be like a Charlie Kaufman movie wasn’t entirely off. It doesn’t use a clever, catchy premise like most of Kaufman’s movies, but some of the so-bleak-it-starts-to-be-funny type humor did remind me tonally of SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. And I guess maybe there’s some Kaufman-esque mind-trippery to the scene where we learn that Mona’s control over Beau’s life extends as far as apparently designing the packaging for the microwave dinner he ate at the beginning. The Gondry comparison is less apt, because there’s just no whimsy in this movie, not even in the cool animated sequence (done by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, the Chilean animators behind the movie THE WOLF HOUSE). It’s just not that kind of party.
I’ve also seen BEAU compared to SOUTHLAND TALES. Both are ambitious, shamelessly excessive, don’t-give-a-fuck big swings by weirdo directors, both express how crazy the world feels through imaginative world-building, and mix close-to-the-bone emotion with some broad silliness. To me BEAU works much better, but I don’t take the comparison as an insult, even if it was meant as one.
In my experience, many of the people who get worked up about A24 movies think the people who like them are falsely accusing them of not being smart enough to like them. I do wish some people would be more open-minded and adventurous in their viewing, but I don’t think not liking this makes anybody dumb. There are all kinds of things that could potentially make it off-putting, not the least of which is that Beau is a character who defies the usual likable/unlikable dichotomy. He’s the opposite of charismatic, he’s frustratingly passive and helpless, he does not at some point dig in to a hidden well of courage or heroism. But he doesn’t turn out to be an asshole either – he doesn’t really give you a reason to hate him. He’s just a schmuck who gets knocked around like a pinball until he goes down the drain. Almost literally.
What are you supposed to think of him, if anything? I don’t know. I both related to him a little (because we all feel like useless messes in over our heads sometimes) and was a little disgusted by him (because we have those 2 hours and 59 minutes to see him never rally to get his shit together). He’s absolutely pathetic, but not in an “oh, my sweet little angel, too delicate for this world” sort of way. We’re allowed to feel bad for him and also laugh about some of the horrendous shit life dumps on him. We’re all human. We’re all in this together. I wouldn’t mind him laughing if it happened to me.
I don’t consider it a flaw that there are aspects of this movie I’m not sure what to make of, but if it was, those flaws would be far overshadowed by just how fucking funny it is to me. In addition to the straight up jokes and funny situations, there are so many little details that make me laugh: That the numbers in his phone memory are MOM, THERAPIST, LOCKSMITH, and MOVIEFONE. That for some reason this family who kidnapped him have silk pajamas that are not his size but do have his name monogrammed on the pocket. That the hallways of his apartment are covered in the filthiest graffiti imaginable, and a poster for some band that says “ANAL DEATH – MURDER BY FUCK,” but in the middle of all of it somebody scrawled “Kiss my grits.” It will be fun to look at this closer on video, because every time I noticed a billboard, book, magazine or newspaper in the frame it had something funny or weird on it.
So if you want to see a movie that’s deeply funny in a dark and original way, and also very weird and surreal and unsettling, and that you might find pretty exhausting and/or overstuffed, but that also has some some goofy fake dicks and balls, I happily recommend BEAU IS AFRAID. I thought it was great!
*including, but not limited to, in chronological order of release:
THE BLING RING
UNDER THE SKIN
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
THE LAST MOVIE STAR
ON THE ROCKS
THE GREEN KNIGHT
EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE
BODIES BODIES BODIES