I heard the phrase “batshit insane” said a lot about Ari Aster’s new film Beau is Afraid before I saw it, and that might be an understatement. It’s three hours long, tells us too much about Aster’s relationship with his mother, and is self-indulgent. I’m not certain that its plot makes sense.
It’s a masterpiece, Aster’s best work to date, and my favorite film of 2023 so far.
The latest from Aster, the director of Hereditary and Midsommar, Beau is Afraid is the filmmaker’s grand statement on anxiety in the modern age, as well as mothers and sons. Its story is told in four distinct movements.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Beau Wasserman, a 40-ish man who doesn’t appear to have a job, and lives in a disgusting apartment in a crime-ridden section of what looks like New York City. His neighborhood resembles equal parts the New York of Taxi Driver, the Detroit of Robocop, and what Fox News says is the state of every major U.S. city today. This part of the film was my favorite, especially the detail of the neighborhood and the breakneck pace of how this world is presented. It’s a much better facsimile of Taxi Driver than that of Joker, which also starred Phoenix.
It’s soon clear that Beau lives with crippling anxiety and unresolved feelings about his mother (Zoe Lister Jones and Patti LuPone, at different ages), who he’s scheduled to soon visit. He gets some bad news, and tries to find his way back to his childhood home.
Subsequent sections of the film have him cared for by a couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan, reunited from Only Murders in the Building), in the woods with traveling theater actors, and ultimately back in his childhood home. Meanwhile, there are flashbacks to his childhood, a lengthy animated interlude, and other moments that seem to take place on another plane of existence.
This is one of those movies that some will spend several months trying to “solve,” but that’s a waste of time. There will be many think pieces, starting with how the film treats Jewish mothers, and that the film seems to take Beau’s side in every single disagreement. There’s also the role of pills, the film’s not-so-compassionate depiction of a veteran with PTSD, and a scene set in an attic that will emerge as the most controversial in the film.
Beau is Afraid is very funny. Phoenix gives one of his best performances, as a character battling anxiety and possibly other forms of mental illness; it’s best to treat all of the film’s narration as unreliable. LuPone shows up to give a big, Broadway-like monologue, and doesn’t disappoint. Other welcome actors turn up in small roles, including Parker Posey, Denis Ménochet and Stephen McKinley Henderson. The Jewishness of Beau is Afraid is muted, aside from a great gag about shivas.
It’s not as much like the Coens’ A Serious Man as the plot description makes it sound, except for a protagonist who seems to be living through the Book of Job, and that Richard Kind shows up. This movie isn’t for everyone. There will be walkouts, and I don’t know that it’s going to make much money. Everything Everywhere All at Once was weird too, but it was weird in a sense of being heartwarming, and embracing family reconciliation. Beau is Afraid isn’t in that spirit, and I don’t expect it to lead A24’s Oscar slate next year. But I’m very glad Beau is Afraid exists.