Beau is Afraid, Ari Aster’s latest A24 production, is absolutely perfect. It is completely outstanding from start to long off finish with only the slightest turbulence in the middle. Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) happens to be paying a visit to his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) the day before he is due to visit his mother (Patti LuPone). But a long series of events curtail his journey home.
Empty yourself of any and all expectations or preconceptions about Beau is Afraid. Enter it with a blank slate and an open mind. Be curious, be cautious, and be captivated by its every oddity, every inch of its sarcastic veneer, and every visually and orally luxuriating scene. When you’re ready, enter into the spectacle that this movie is and allow yourself to be awed by the genius connecting every scene within a scene within a scene within a scene. I know that not everyone will click with this film, but it clicked with me the moment it began, and for three full hours, I was entranced.
I was entranced, foremost, because I knew exactly what this movie was about from the instant it began. In the opening scene, Beau is asked a very blunt question by his therapist that, in my reading of the movie, is the lynchpin of everything that follows. It’s a confusing and layered movie in pretty much every way, and I have no intention of describing the plot in detail because to do so for even a moment would be to ruin the experience of Beau is Afraid. But I know with complete certainty that this movie makes sense to me instantaneously because it was my story too.
Beau’s defining feature is his anxiety and how it cripples him, halts his ability to make decisions, makes him beholden to his perception of his mother’s expectations of him, and basically controls his life in every other way. He’s a top-tier catastrophizer whose past and the sources of his anxiety are revealed slowly and often indirectly over the course of the movie. The line between real and imaginary is as thin as can be and his catastrophizing nature only makes it more impossible to discern within the movie itself. I have my understanding of the film’s grasp on reality, but I think each viewer should surmise that for themselves.
The line is able to be so thin in part because the movie juxtaposes its tenseness against absolutely hilarious physical comedy. Beau is Afraid is the most I’ve laughed out loud in a theater in a long time. It’s also only funny because the movie is so serious. The complete absurdity of nearly every scene is often funny unto itself because of killer portrayals like Nathan Lane‘s, silly moments like a mad rush to buy a bottle of water, or simply absurd situations that happen over and over again. But it’s all elevated into great humor by the fact that it happens constantly during the least funny of circumstances. People could be dead in the middle of the hallway unannounced, but the second a man appears clinging to the ceiling above Beau’s bathtub while he’s in it, sincerity is out the window.
The best part of Beau is Afraid’s humor though, is its constant, impeccably timed and delivered, exceedingly heimish sarcasm. There’s something that feels distinctly Jewish about a lot of the sarcasm, perhaps because of specific lines that I can hear my own mother saying as soon as they’re spoken on screen, or perhaps because it’s being uttered frequently by Jewish characters. I was laughing hysterically at every turn and during moments of complete tension, to the point where I was often the only one laughing in the whole theater, all because of some wry comment or moment of completely sly sarcasm.
Visually, the movie is just as stunning. The sets are all complete feasts for the eyes with so many details that reveal themselves from new angles in the same rooms. Beau’s mother’s house especially is an incredible set and is used perfectly to convey how she impacts him and to conceal and reveal most of the film’s ultimate secrets. The makeup design for all of Beau’s many, many injuries becomes a focal point for his character physically, as well as an extended animated sequence done in a perfectly storybook but mature style. It’s subtle at first, then becomes quite bold, and in all of its forms makes what would otherwise be the movie’s nadir into just another leg on the impeccable journey that is this movie. This sequence also offers the best example of what I consider intentionally stilted scripting up against some equally excellent poetic screenplay.
I will be thinking about Beau is Afraid and all of its tiny details and perfectly timed sarcasm for a long time. I was captivated for nearly every minute of its extended runtime, thanks in great part to the award-worthy performance by Pheonix and the incredible work of everyone around him. By the final scene, risen beyond perfection by Richard Kind, I was left at once speechless and thrilled. I was so excited to feel like I saw myself in the anxiety of it all, to have been moved by some of the movie’s highs and swept away by its final upsetting shot. It’s a completely absurd movie with an incredible organizing principle that guides every twist and every oddity toward an utterly relatable allegory about anxiety and how (Jewish) mothers can pass that down.
Beau is Afraid is playing in theaters everywhere April 21st.
Beau is Afraid
I will be thinking about Beau is Afraid and all of its tiny details and perfectly timed sarcasm for a long time. It’s a completely absurd movie with an incredible organizing principle that guides every twist and every oddity toward an utterly relatable allegory about anxiety and how (Jewish) mothers can pass that down.