Someone, please go check on Ari Aster.
When the writer/director released Hereditary in 2018 I was genuinely invested in his approach to domestic drama as a horror piece, weaving narratives of generational mental health issues and mommy fixations into gorgeous set designs revolving around tiny home art installations. It was a discomforting piece of filmmaking that introduced a filmmaker to wider audiences, though those of us aware of his short The Strange Thing About the Johnsons were aware of his bizarre fixation on familial relationships and trauma. Beau is Afraid, the director’s latest theatrical release, is of a piece with those sensibilities and dives deeper into the territory of “weird” than anything he’s done before. I have a deep adoration for his sophomore narrative film, Midsommar, and regularly think back on it, but it now seems to have merely been a deviation from what Aster is genuinely interested in.
Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) is a ball of anxiety. His neighborhood is riddled with criminals and angry homeless people, rednecks toting around automatic rifles, and constant violence in the streets due to a dong-hanging serial killer known as Birthday Boy Stab Man (Bradley Fisher). He’s headed to visit his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone), when his keys and bag are stolen and he’s forced to reschedule his plans. Unthrilled with her son’s excuse, she tells him to simply “make the right decision,” launching Beau on an odyssey across what seems to only be about a hundred miles as he tries to make it to his mother’s home.
“Guilt” is a key theme in Beau, as emphasized by Stephen McKinley Henderson’s therapist character writing it in gorgeous calligraphy on a notepad and placing an emphatic period at the end of it. Creating a cinematic representation of anxiety is no easy task, so why was Aster able to do so in a way that feels overblown and accurate all at once? You’ll have to him, his mother, or his therapist, but what lays onscreen feels like a panic attack manifested as a Homeric odyssey that will obviously end in grave disappointment and more guilt. Anyone who has lived with parents that just never want you out of their sight or their lives might be able to relate and connect with Aster’s vision, but those with a healthier grasp on life will be baffled by some of the decisions made in this three-hour beast.
There’s a nervous and frantic energy to Lucian Johnston’s editing, clipping between animated scenes and high-speed panic to depressed and frightened stoicism. Beau has total control over his life and has yet to feel like he has any. There’s a lot he’s never had in his life and much of it comes down to a perceived lack of control, an anxiety that plagues millennials to a frightening degree and will go unrecognized by many still living with coping mechanisms instead of healing. It’s choppy, uncomfortable, and accurate. Johnston has created something less focused than his previous efforts like Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth or Aster’s previous two films, but what comes to the screen in Beau is infinitely more personal and frightening.
That freaky cutting is equaled by a cast that feels cobbled together from the worst of what you think about modern America. From the serial killer to the inept cop (Michael Esper) that screams at Beau to stay still or he’ll shoot despite the latter being frozen in fear, each aspect of the cast and their behavior is something linked to an anxiety that only comes to a generation that is terminally addicted to doomscrolling. Loss and grief are commodities and advertisements, medication only breeds more fear (don’t take the pills without water…ever), and even something as small as a lone spider can be reason enough to frighten a building full of people. From professional wasps Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane) to childhood crush Elaine (Parker Posey), each exaggerated individual is looking for balance and consistency in all of the wrong places and each is manipulating Beau because he has absolutely no ability to stand up for himself.
Few artists would be able to accurately depict Ari Aster’s personal brand of discomfort, depression, and anxiety in another medium the way that Bobby Krlic has been able to. The composer, known previously for his electronic music under the name “The Haxan Cloak,” has returned to Aster’s fold to compose a series of music that sounds like depression and discomfort. It sounds like the anxiety that runs under quite a lot of my days, with pops and flutters that flit over a drone. It’s a freaky album that is going to do well with those that already suffer from the issues Aster is depicting, maybe because of how it exacerbates them rather than in spite of them.
Beau is Afraid is an awkward, dreadfully freaky odyssey that is going to have a hard time connecting with most viewers. I adore this kind of filmmaking, with creatives that are allowed to just go off and let their inner issues fly in a way that feels personal and unique. We need more of this in a world where everything is synergized, corporatized, and focus-grouped to hell.
Beau is Afraid is currently in theatres.