A Mind Bending Investigation into Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid
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A Mind Bending Investigation into Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid. Oh, Bessy! The Indie movie gods really crushed it for you today. Beau is Afraid is one of those rare trifectas in the film world I’m always on the lookout for. Oh? You are curious what I’m dying to see in a film? Gather round my friends, do not worry… let me regale for you exactly what it is that I’m looking for… and therefore, you too are desperate to see in a new film!
Hollywood level acting – Joaquin Phoenix √!
A Fantastic Screenplay – Ari Aster (Midsommer/Hereditary) √!
Inscrutability – √√√!
The biggest thing that I’m always looking for is a movie that I have to really grapple with. And wow, do we have that here today with Beau is Afraid. The movie just oozes atmospheric chills throughout. The movie really just cakes the unease on in buckets. And it was difficult to understand what was just so horrible, and why everything was so pear-shaped from beginning to end. But we’ll get into that soon enough. First though, if you haven’t seen the movie, please don’t continue on past the trailer unless you do, because the rest of this post will be spoilers throughout.
Beau is Afraid Introduction:
Hello, fellow film enthusiasts! Today, I am excited to dive into the enigmatic world of the film known as ‘Untitled Joaquin Phoenix Film.’ This captivating and mind-bending tale takes us on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, as we follow the mysterious journey of Beau, brilliantly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix. Join me as we unravel the twists and turns of this intriguing narrative, delving into its complex characters and perplexing plot.
A Closer Look at the Characters: Let’s begin by acquainting ourselves with the central figures who bring this enigmatic story to life:
Beau (Joaquin Phoenix): Our protagonist, Beau is a troubled soul navigating a series of bizarre events that blur the line between reality and illusion.
Mona Wassermann (Zoe Lister-Jones/Patti LuPone): Beau’s mother, whose presence and actions serve as a catalyst for the unfolding narrative.
Dr. Jeremy Strand (Stephen McKinley Henderson): Beau’s therapist, who provides him with an experimental drug and guides him through his tumultuous journey.
Roger (Nathan Lane) and Grace (Amy Ryan): A couple who inadvertently become entwined in Beau’s life, offering him shelter and care during his time of need.
Jeeves (Denis Menochet): A mentally unstable veteran connected to Roger and Grace’s family, whose actions add an unsettling element to the story.
A Mind-Bending Narrative:
The labyrinthine tale of Beau is Afraid is insane. Let’s just get that out of the way. It’s an Oedipal Fever Dream. K? Right. And the entirety of this movie, may, or may not, ever happen. Got that? So keep that in mind as we delve into the crazy world of Beau’s Never Ending Fever Dream.
The film begins with the birth of Beau. The visuals are hallucinogenic and the audio is horrific. We get the sense that this is Beau’s birth and, oh, by the way, he most likely was dropped somewhere along the way. And with that surreal opening sequence we are tossed into Mona Wassermann’s world with Beau. From this scary, blurry, horrifyingly disconcerting opening, we lay the bedrock and shifting foundation of everything else that is to follow.
Jumping forward to the present, we find Beau seeking solace in therapy sessions with Dr. Jeremy Strand (Stephen McKinley Henderson – who awesome in Devs). Through their discussions, we learn more and more about Beau and his complex fears and trauma in relation to his mother that permeated from his childhood, and continues to this day. We learn from Beau’s flashbacks, a visualized fear-sequences, that Beau was once coerced into a fairly frightful bath by Mona. So much so, if any of you psychologists reading this would love to do a conversation on this topic alone, give me a yell! This is crazy stuff. What is going on here doc?
Beau continues to attempt to navigate this chaotic, near-post apocalyptic and ultra-chaotic world. We see Beau’s fears manifested in his panicked perspective of the world around him. The beatings, the muggings, the things being set on fire… his surroundings are more a reflection of Beau’s own troubled state than it having to do with any connection to reality that surrounds Beau. It’s fairly unbelievable how this eclectic mix of deviants, drug-addicted homeless individuals, and deranged characters adds an unsettling layer to the narrative. Now we know that Beau is going to visit his mother the next day as it was a large portion of the conversation during his counseling session. But that night, his attempts to sleep before his scheduled flight are thwarted by his neighbors’ disruptions, amplifying his mounting frustrations.
Things go decidedly downhill when Beau wakes up on the day of his flight, only to discover that his key and luggage have been stolen by an irate neighbor. His attempts to explain the situation to his mother, and why he won’t be able to come, fall on deaf ears. She ultimately doubts his sincerity that he, in fact, wants to come visit her. (He does, doesn’t he?) And this ultimately forces him to spiral really badly. And it might have been the introduction of an experimental drug prescribed by Dr. Strand – who emphasizes the fact that he has to take this medication with water, and the fact that he never does – further blurs the boundaries of Beau’s reality, raising questions about the nature of his experiences. Let me spell it out for the slower members among us: IS ANY OF THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENING?
Regardless, despite the chaos all around him, Beau embarks on a desperate quest for water in order to swallow his medication. And, as he does, he runs into obstacle after obstacle. A tattooed homeless man, a needy stranger, and a flood of rampaging degenerates hell-bent on ransacking Beau’s apartment building and his home. The line between hallucination and actuality becomes increasingly blurred the deeper we go. And when Beau ends up fighting with a man in his apartment who is ultimately killed by a spider, we are certain that we have left the land of reality. How could any of this be real – the guy joined a besieging force of Beau’s apartment, and then hid pressed against the ceiling above his bath. ???!?
Worse, when Beau calls his mother to give her an update on his progress (or lack thereof) on his heading to come visit her, a UPS delivery man picks up the phone. Why? Because his mother’s head has been exploded by a falling chandelier. Let’s just pause a moment to let that sink in.
Wait. She’s dead?? Isn’t the entirety of this movie one big Freudian schadenfreude?? How can we continue on with Mona dead? Don’t worry my friends, Ari has plenty more up his sleeve where that came from. And, I would actually argue, that the real unhinging doesn’t happen until Beau’s mother is crushed. In the melee-chaos of his apartment’s land war, and the city streets, Beau is attacked, stabbed, and ultimately “saved” by a couple named Roger (Nathan Lane) and Grace (Amy Ryan) who take him in and nurse him back to health. Sure, they hit him with their car, and they seem kind enough, but there is something much darker going on here. What are they up to?
Alright, so Beau wakes up from his coma 48 hours later with Roger, Grace, their daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers), and a mentally unstable vet named Jeeves (Denis Menochet), who they are also helping. Eventually, Beau reaches out to their family’s lawyer, Dr. Cohen (Richard Kind) who lays into Beau for only contacting him DAYS later. The big problem is that Beau’s mother cannot be buried because she her wishes were that Beau would be present. So, with his need to get home now getting to urgent levels, he asks Roger and Grace to help him get home. But they aren’t keen on his leaving, like at all. He should stay until he’s fully healed.
Continuing to delay, and delay some more, Roger is working hard to keep Beau right where he is. The longer he stays though, the more he realizes that they are watching him, and recording his every move. Eventually, Toni messes with Beau, and forces him to smoke a joint laced with numerous crazy things in it. See? More unknown drugs which seems to be an important component to this entire narrative. And when he smokes the joint, he begins seeing Elaine… seeing her right next to him… which kicks of a flashback to his teenage years. A memory (?) of his first meeting Elaine when they shared their first kiss. Elaine’s mother, who was forcing her to leave, but instead she ran to Beau’s room and kissed him in front of Beau’s mother. The two new lovers will save themselves for each other in the future.
Toni has a melt down about her brother, and she tells Beau to paint over her brother’s walls, and then suddenly, she has a mental breakdown and begins drinking the paint… and dies. When Grace comes in, she sees Beau holding Toni’s lifeless body. And, obviously, it was Beau that killed her. So Beau runs straight through a sliding door, and flees into the woods. And with that, Grace tells Jeeves to find Beau and tear him apart.
Beau eventually connects with a weird group of forest hippies called “The Orphans of the Forest.” Beau sits and watches a play that seems to detail out his own life, and the death of his parents, and his journey through life all the way to becoming elderly. He meets his two sons. Soon after, Jeeves arrives and begins attacking everyone there. He kills the lead, and starts tossing hand grenades. And Beau manages to run away.
A random passerby takes Beau into Wasserton… which happens to be named after his mother. There, he finds his mother’s body ready for burial. He runs into Elaine again, and he has to reintroduce himself to her. At this Elaine tells him that she waited, all these years for him. But during sex, Elaine dies mid-coitus, and Beau’s mother? Basically says, I told you so… because you know what? She’s alive.
Apparently, Mona faked her death in order to keep tabs on her son. They’ve all been working for her, Dr. Strand, Grace, and Roger… everyone. <Pause> – Um. Does this seem like a legit, real life story, or the ravings of a horribly repressed and terribly fearful son with enormous mother issues. I’m asking for a friend. </Pause> We watch as Mona has Elaine’s body carted out – and we learn that Beau used to hate going into the attic as a child, and where does his mother banish him to? Yeah, the attic. But while there, he actually meets his “real father” – a, wait for it… penis-shaped monster. Okay, okay… who slipped this movie the LSD? Anyone know? Come on, someone needs to fess up because it wasn’t me. Regardless, Beau makes it back downstairs and apologizes to his mother, only to have her belittle him all the more. Beau, snapping begins strangling her, and this time, actually kills her for real… question mark?
Running outside – Beau hops on a boat and heads out to sea. Seemingly, he might actually be on a path to escape all this madness… but suddenly, we find that he’s trapped now in an arena filled with an audience. Mona arrives (not dead) alongside Dr. Cohen, and they put him on trial. (Can you say Kafka’s The Trial… anyone? And yes, this is a moment when stopping, and reading this book, after a seemingly irrelevant throwaway comment would really help make sense of this movie.) Immediately, his mother makes him look like a terrible son. Didn’t help that Mona’s employees push Beau’s defense attorney to his death. (The TRIAL, read it.) Beau, declared guilty, finds out that his feet have been glued to the boat. And suddenly realizes that the boat has caught on fire. When the boat explodes, sends Beau into the water, and causes him to drown. With that, Beau’s mother, and Dr. Cohen leave. The End.
Can We Make Sense of Beau is Afraid?
OK. The answer is no – but actually, definitively, yes. I could give you various theories, and let you choose for yourself. The “IS IT A DREAM/NIGHTMARE?!?” theory. Or maybe the, “HE’S HIGH THE ENTIRE MOVIE!!!” theory. I can keep going on various ways to incorrectly interpret this movie without even breaking a sweat. But there really is only one correct way to view this movie. So, I suggest we skip straight to the chase and see if we can’t make heads and tails out of this movie in the quickest way possible.
Beau is Afraid is a Lens Into Raging Agoraphobia
Okay, so it’s more than that. But I would argue that the entirety of the movie Beau is Afraid is all about an individual with a powerfully strong social anxiety disorder, and as we watch, we are watching the world through his truly deranged mind’s eye. The movie is structured similarly to Kafka’s The Trial, which is a story about the loss of justice and the terror of full-blown anarchy in society. And as we watch the story of The Trial unfold we see just horribly insane events collapse on K as the plot winds its way through one insane event after another. Similarly, Beau is giving us his own view of what real insanity looks like from his own mind.
I would argue that the prime mover of the movie is Beau’s mother Mona, but her actions are 100% about getting him to leave his apartment, and his safe circle, and getting him to come and visit her. And, as we see the world through Beau’s mind, we realize that he sees his world as anything but safe. Which is why it is so very difficult for him to leave to go get a drink of water, let alone leave and head to the airport and travel across the country to see his mother.
Notice the absurdity of the chaos in his neighborhood. A naked man running around stabbing people randomly? It sounds more like someone’s unleashed imagination making things up at will rather than anything else. And we get confirmation of this fact in how Beau converses with his therapist, and how his therapist is encouraging Beau to go and to visit his mother. And as he “attempts” to go, we watch as one terrible hurdle is thrown in front of him after another.
To make matters worse, he also has symptoms of a really strained relationship with his family as a result of his mental inabilities. But is Mona, his mother, actually faking her own death in order to find out what he really thinks about her? Whether he would drop everything and come running or not?? No… that’s the plot of a really bad Mission Impossible movie, not a real interaction between a mother and son. I mean, even in the worst of all possible relationships that isn’t a thing.
Final Thoughts on Beau is Afraid
I think I said somewhere in this way too long write-up that the movie is a raging Oedipal Fever Dream. And it is. It isn’t enjoyable in any possible way. It was so paranoid that it began to make me paranoid. But that is what Ari Aster is great at. His work on Midsommar (scariest movie of all time, hands down… nothing even comes close) and also Hereditary proclaims that this is what he tries to do in all of his movies. To scare his audience. And scare us he has… sans jump scares. He made a movie that is so unsettling as to seep into your bones. It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve watched this movie, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Kafka would have been proud.