Warning: Review Contains Spoilers
What does a director do when they’ve been tagged as a “horror filmmaker” but then want to start doing something else? That’s kind of the predicament that a whole generation of indie auteurs seem to be running into after many of them found themselves making “elevated horror” and then had to decide if they want to keep doing that or move on to something else that maybe isn’t going to be as commercial. Robert Eggers probably pulled this off the best by focusing in on the historical rather than suspense elements of his debut film The Witch, transitioned into the hothouse suspense effort The Lighthouse, and then into a borderline action film with The Northman. Then there’s Jennifer Kent, who went from making The Babadook to making The Nightingale, which wasn’t really a horror movie but was a violent revenge movie that would provide some interest to the genre crowd. On the other end of the spectrum though there’s David Robert Mitchell, who followed up his “elevated horror” film It Follows by taking whatever clout that gave him and using it to make an outlandishly weird go-for-broke follow-up devoid of horror called Under the Silver Lake. Some people love it, personally I’m not much of a fan but I admire the effort. It would seem that Ari Aster has gone the same route by, following up his twin A24 horror triumphs, Hereditary and Midsommar, by having that buzzy studio give him $35 million dollars to make a wild three hour surreal tragicomedy called Beau is Afraid which is… quite the gamble.
Beau is Afraid starts off feeling like a movie that takes its title very literally. The film’s first section we’re introduced to our subject, Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), a highly neurotic middle aged man who’s on psychiatric medication and lives in an incredibly dumpy bordering on dangerous apartment in New York. Or does he? As the movie started we see Beau encounter threatening person after threatening person in New York, learn from a new report about a knife wielding nude man who’s been murdering people, and even hear that there’s a venomous spider loose in Beau’s building. Is Beau really living in a world that’s this comically dangerous, or is much of this not actually happening and what we’re actually seeing on screen are manifestations of his delusional paranoia about the world and its many dangers. Anyway, we learn that he soon plans to visit his mother Mona (Patti LuPone) only to have that trip derailed by a series of misadventures. He then gets a phone call telling him that Mona may have been killed in a freak accident, leading him to spiral a bit, and much of the rest of the film is his often interrupted journey to reach his hometown to attend her funeral, which leads to a sort of picaresque story along the way that will also dig into his psychology and paranoia.
If the first quarter of the film is about everything that leaves Beau unsettled and frightened in the city, the second quarter is about how the suburban life hardly leaves him any more comfortable. In this section he’s being nursed to health following an accident by a rather strange couple played by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane despite feeling immense pressure to leave and attend his mother’s funeral as quickly as possible. The couple are seemingly as polite as they can be at all times, and yet there does seem to be something threatening about them just the same and you empathize with Beau’s paranoia about possible secondary motives they may have to hold him there. Meanwhile their home also features a traumatized soldier who served with their dead son and appears to be about as dangerous as the nude stabber back in New York, and also a teenage daughter who seems to represent everything that scares people Beau’s age about the next generation (teenage apathy, rebellion, phone addiction, suicidal tendencies, and also the fear that a man his age could be accused of predatory feelings towards them). So clearly Beau’s paranoia is not contained to New York, it seems all encompassing.
Once that section of the film ends we’ve been pretty well introduced to everything driving Beau mad and we spend the second half of the film trying to get to the bottom of why he’s such a basket case. Short answer: his mother fucked him up, and continues to fuck him up… or does she? We get a number of flashbacks to Beau’s teen years which tell a story of a young man whose father allegedly died before he was born from a heart murmur that killed him on his wedding night right as he conceived this son, leaving him to be raised by his high achieving but over-bearing mother who may well have latched onto him a bit too strongly to the point where there may have been some sort of incestuous feelings or abuse going on. But this is hard to really determine definitively because Beau is about as unreliable a narrator as you can get: he’s a guy who seems to view the entire world as a surreal hellscape filled with people who want to kill him for no particular reason and we have no real way of knowing if he’s viewing his own past and his mother any more or less objectively in these various flashbacks. And of course with one exception nothing scares Beau more than sex, something he thinks will literally kill him like it allegedly killed his father, though it’s hard to know if that story isn’t just another manifestation of his paranoia and flashbacks to his time on a cruise ship where he makes a fleeting connection to a girl his own age seem to mark some sort of turning point where he definitively set himself in his ways.
In the film’s third quarter we get something of a highlight in which Beau stumbles into this elaborate outdoor theater where a troupe is putting on some sort of makeshift play that Beau seems to connect with and start envision as his own story. At this point the set decoration of the stage becomes cinematic and combines with animation to become this story within a story that’s meant to really probe into the hopes and dreams of this guy who can only dream of having something resembling a normal life in a sort biblical parable about a man who goes through nearly Job like trials. That digression is eventually rather violently interrupted and from there things just become increasingly bleak as the film’s final fourth focuses on the real or imagined logical endpoint of all Beau’s worries and tries to find definitive answers to what made him the way he is. I said before that nothing scares Beau more than sex, but that maybe isn’t quite true, the thing that really scares him above all is the disapproval of his mother and the film’s final episode is meant to represent the logical endpoint of this. Where there may be some grain of logic in being afraid of urban crime or traumatized soldiers there isn’t really any mortal danger to be found in maternal disapproval is there? After all, what is Mona Wasserman going to do if she’s angry at him? Fake her death in order to entrap him failing to appear at her funeral in time as revenge for missing a visit and then publicly reveal him as a bad son in front of a kangaroo court before drowning him under a capsized boat? Seems like a pretty far-fetched dander to be in fear of but is it any more or less likely to happen than getting bitten by a brown recluse spider in a New York apartment?
Alright, so that covers much of the film’s runtime but maybe it’s time to take a step back and talk about what this movie even is. The film feels almost entirely different from the pair of horror movies that Ari Aster built his career on. I guess there are similar “mother issues” at the center of Hereditary and some of Patti LuPone’s line deliveries did remind me a bit of Toni Collette’s performance in that, but otherwise they’re pretty different. This isn’t a horror movie and it doesn’t have the tone of something like Midsommer at all. Instead this actually reminded me a lot more of the work of Charlie Kaufman, particularly his more “out there” directorial efforts like Synecdoche, New York and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, not just in the film’s batshit audacity but also in that it is very interested in getting in the head of a lonely and kind of schlubby middle aged protagonist who maybe has a bit of a screw loose. That is perhaps a bit of a surprise coming from the 36 year old Aster, who’s at least a decade younger than his protagonist. How personal any of this is is going to be a bit of a mystery as Beau doesn’t really seem like that much of a self-insert given what we know about Aster personally. He’s plainly more successful than Beau, he didn’t have a single mother, and his parents were by all accounts artsy types rather than successful business people… but all of this has to be coming from somewhere right?
One thing that Beau does seem to have in common with Aster is Jewish identity, which is something the film doesn’t make too big of a deal out of but given the name I’m pretty sure that the Wassermanns are supposed to be Jewish and there is a pretty key reference to Jewish burial ritual. That would by extension make Mona Wassermann a Jewish mother, which is of course something of a loaded stock figure and stereotype, which can make this a bit of a touchy subject for a goyim like me to talk about but it’s definitely something that’s embedded in the film. The Wikipedia page on “Jewish stenotypes” describes this archetype as “a woman intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering and attempting to engender enormous guilt in her children via the endless suffering which she professes to have experienced on their behalf.” Think of the nagging woman at the center of Woody Allen’s New York Stories short “Oedipus Wrecks” in which the protagonist’s mother is such a nag that she continues to criticize him as a supernatural apparition after she disappears in a magic trick accident. But where Allen and other Jewish entertainers have harnessed this stereotype as a source of humor over the years Aster seems to be painting this tendency as a more serious bordering on abusive tendencies that have left Beau with genuine scars, especially given his other paranoid tendencies.
On the other hand, given how much of an unreliable narrator Beau is it’s entirely possible that his mother isn’t really anything close to the manipulative and conniving bitch she’s depicted as being in Beau’s head. In fact I think it’s entirely plausible that nothing we see of this woman beyond the initial phone call to her “actually” happened outside of Beau’s head. In fact the movie is so aggressively surreal that most of what happens in it can be said to be in Beau’s head and it’s unclear how much if anything on screen is “real,” and that could likely be a source of frustration for many. Three hours is a very long time to expect people to live in the head of a paranoid weirdo so the movie is kind of asking a lot of its viewers and some of its abstractions are a little hard to swallow. The animatronic killer cock monster, for example, was probably a bit much. But the bigger issue is that the movie somehow manages to be both cinematically cryptic while also being kind of blatantly obvious and unsubtle at the same time. It asks you to dig through this guy’s psyche and what you find at the center are in many ways just Freudian clichés about mommy issues and sexual hang-ups.
So is the movie even any good? I don’t know, this kind of feels like a ridiculous movie to boil down to a simple “thumbs up or thumbs down” and even as I write the final paragraph of this I don’t really know what star rating I’m going to give the damn thing. It’s certainly not a movie I’d casually recommend to the average moviegoer, and even among the more dedicated cinephilles I’m pretty sure this one is going to be divisive, including among fans of Aster’s previous work. Personally, I don’t know, it’s hard for me not to at least be intrigued by something that’s this ambitious and adventurous being put up on the screen and there were definitely moments of cinematic invention in it like that “play within a film” scene that had me riveted. On the other hand I do think the running time is legitimately out of control and I’m not sure the psychology underpinning all of this really holds up. Insomuch as it does hold up I think there’s something interesting being said about what a state of perpetual fear does to people. As I’m writing this we’re going through a wave of high profile news stories about people getting shot at for ringing the wrong doorbell or driving into the wrong driveway, and the Fox Newses of the world are going out of their way to cause a state of maximum paranoia in this country and in that context something like this could be useful, but in this movie the paranoia is so directly personalized to this one dude’s baggage that I’m not sure it really says much about fear within the wider society like that. But I’ve been talking about this movie for well over 2000 words at this point so clearly it provoked thoughts and I do think this is a movie that should be seen even if only for everyone to compare notes.
***1/2 out of Five