A lot can happen when you leave your house in the morning and go about your day.
You can get in your car and drive to work. You could stop by Starbucks on your way in and grab an iced matcha and a muffin. Maybe your mom will call you and ask how your day is going so far. You might hear a song on the radio you like. You could also die a horrific death and no one come to your funeral and your life means nothing oh my gosh what the hell okay at least there’s parking.
If the above paragraph makes no sense to you, you might be a little perturbed by Ari Aster’s searing magnum opus Beau is Afraid. If you know, you know….if you Beau, you Beau. Yes, it might seem a bit dramatic to fear the apocalypse before you’ve even checked your email for the day, but such is life when you’re living with intense anxiety. As one of the auteurism’s new champions, Aster has invested his budding filmography in studying the way that anxiety functions in people in crises. He unlocks the unavoidable, at times perverse consequences of domestic traumas that feast on us down like starved, rabid tigers. In Aster’s world, we can run, but we can’t hide.
What does it even mean to be anxious in an Aster movie? Some people are a little anxious before a first date. Some people can’t get out of bed in the morning because their floor might as well be lava at this point. Aster’s not all that concerned with the people in the first camp. Unfettered, world-engulfing anxiety is a constricting paralysis of the mind that flows through the body like raw sewage. It is the deafening roar of something beyond you telling you that you’re not safe, that you’re not enough, that you’re guilty and capable of nonsense, that it’s not worth fighting back. It sucks.
In Beau is Afraid, Aster sets a perpetually horrified avatar (Joaquin Phoenix) on the ultimate trauma game board. He’s a bit of a freaked-out Beanie Baby, stricken with all-time arrested development and the tragic flaw of being just a little too nice. His mother is his boogeyman, and the world he lives is absolute worst-case scenario for any metropolitan city 30 years from now. Imagine if one of those X-rated Ralph Bakshi cartoons spilled out into the streets of New York Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style. Think Idiocracy meets Too Many Cooks meets Children of Men. Beau has to sprint back to his grimy hovel of a studio apartment after therapy to avoid getting potentially stabbed by an internet meme sprung to life. It’s not a great place to live.
Just spelling out “Beau is Afraid” is honestly the best plot synopsis that money can buy because…he is. It’s never overtly clear if we’re joining Beau in his literal habitat or if Aster’s film is merely the shockingly vivid personification of a mind on fire. It’s most likely both. Even if all of this feels like Adult Swim-at-midnight horror nonsense wrapped in a Charlie Kaufman burrito of metaphysical confusion and M.C. Esher plot shifts, it still feels bracingly real. Beau’s journey really starts as he has to rush across the street to drink a bottle of water so his new anxiety medication doesn’t kill him. After that, a gang of miscreants flood his apartment building, trash his home and leave him sleeping on scaffolding. It somehow winds up with him running naked and afraid through the street, being hit by what looks to be some sort of food truck and then nearly filleted to death by someone called the Birthday Boy Stab Man.
Aster’s film is delirium, a seemingly impossible-to-decipher winding gyre of every worst-case scenario known to man. Beau is all of us who can’t go one single day without being terrified of the worst-possible scenario exploding into our consciousness like a fast-moving flip book. Aster’s brilliance here springs from his ability to scare the bejesus out of you while making you chuckle at the absurdity of why you’re so frightened. If you really think about it, having a fantastic fear of everything is kind of hilarious. Beau is a bit of an easy target because he’s purposefully not fleshed out. He’s simply the Piglet in your brain who turns bright pink and fears the worst when confronted with the simplest of obstacles. In one of the grandest storytelling swings this side of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Aster has turned the journey of confronting the life lived in fear into such a rigorously dense, narratively confounding horror-comedy epic that even the most studied of film scholars might not get on this one’s wavelength. This film might alienate millions, but it also might save countless others. It’s one of the most important pieces of American cinema this millennium.
Phoenix’s performance as Beau trickles down from the actor’s uncanny ability to basically play any type of person, as he carefully welds the character’s problematic passiveness and his innate bravery to even vaguely attempt to take a single step on this opaque odyssey. Exploring your anxiety means unearthing your blended past, present and future, and for Beau, it all begins and ends with his mother. Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti LuPone, both spectacular and scary in their own ways, double as Mona Wassermann, Beau’s mama and a titan of industry. She’s a woman who somehow bent the entirety of America into a corporate conglomerate that would seemingly protect her son from any sort of harm. She also so royally screwed up her son’s mental health that Beau is Afraid happens.
Generational trauma can wash over you daily like a malevolent red tide you can’t swim away from, and Aster knows full and well how not being able to escape your past makes for horrifying cinema. Although, Beau is Afraid feels like his thesis on how you pave a path forward when all else fails. We may not be able to fully rip apart foundational damage, but we can accept it’s there and just try to, for once in our lives, move on and just let it happen.
Trying to convince a hyper-anxious person to let go of control, to allow the rhythms of life to play out and just soak in the time they have, can be like asking an aardvark to drive a busted school bus through 15 flaming hoops. It’s nonsensical to the point where you’re not even speaking to the same species. Although, that’s the freedom in accepting the inevitability of life, in just allowing the cards to fall as they do. Beau is afraid, sure, but he’s also a hell of a marathon runner through the avoidance of reality. Aster’s masterwork highlights so many little and big anxieties and their nefarious roots that only viewing his film can expand upon. It’s equal parts gut-busting and harrowing to the point of maybe needing to leave the theater to get some air.
All the same, Beau is Afraid is, without question, one of the best movies ever made about mental health. Hell, it might just be one of the best movies ever made. Through a film that could absolutely unintelligible to some, it will preach like sweet, sweet gospel to others. Aster has given generations that are and generations to come a living, breathing document of how to confront their worst fears, the ones that dominate an existence and can go as far back to the womb. The film’s ending might feel like a bizarre cliffhanger with no resolution, but be wary of ignoring the startling optimism. As singularly twisted as his sensibilities may be, Aster’s movie can be as self-revelatory as a breathless session of intense therapy.
You might not realize it after the three-hour sit, but just idle in the car for a second after you leave the theater and let that final shot sink in. Movies can’t fully fix your mental health issues, but they sure as hell can point you in the right direction. To be very exact, Beau is Afraid can be a macabre map to finding a better life if you let it. Some folks might hate this film with a passion, but the ones who love it will get it. If you leave the movie a bit exhausted and pleasantly weightless, the film will have done its job. In all the mayhem, Beau is Afraid can offer a little healing. If you’re not as anxious after the movie as you were watching it, that’s the point.