“A career-killing film, Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid is what happens when studios cede full creative freedom to directors with reckless disregard for audiences outside themselves, Joaquin’s stellar performance goes to waste in this dumpster fire that A24 needs to answer for–0/10,” tweeted Erick Weber. Fellow tweeter Drew Landry disagreed with a twist, “Just saw Beau Is Afraid (personally loved it) and afterwards a dude stood up in the theater and screamed ‘FUCK THIS MOVIE. WORST FUCKING PIECE OF GARBAGE I’VE EVER SEEN’ and a few other people joined in. I’ve NEVER seen people get this angry at a movie. 10/10 film of the year.”
These two Twitter reviews, which were collected along with two other polarized responses, singlehandedly (doublehandedly?) motivated me to sit through Ari Aster’s three-hour mommy issues pet project. I mean, a career killer that has people violently launching themselves at the screen in response? Now, you’re speaking my language! I could not run to the theater fast enough, which I did on a Sunday afternoon with approximately fifteen other people sitting scattered in the cavernous and opulent Village East.
Why was I so enthused by these kneejerk reactions to a film that was, by all accounts, exhausting? Well, because Beau Is Afraid sounded like a ride. By a ride, I mean a very specific type of overblown, unrelenting, self-indulgent, often non-linear film that is made by a director with seemingly no checks and balances from studios or loved ones! The kind of film that typically has to be reconsidered years later by critics who decide to rewrite history and pretend they always appreciated it. Think David Lynch’s three-hour Poland-based, bunny-themed psychotic break Inland Empire. Or Stanley Kubrick’s faithful documentary of how wealthy Americans live, fuck, and blackmail (*cough* Epstein *cough* Bohemian Grove), Eyes Wide Shut, which largely consists of Tom Cruise wandering blankly around the Village at night. Or the Marilyn Monroe adaptation that still makes the Internet seethe to this day, Andrew Dominik’s Blonde. Or Charlie Kaufman’s theatrical unraveling, Synecdoche, New York, which is shorter than the previously mentioned but feels much longer. These expansively aggressive cinematic assaults are not meant to be taken in and understood but simply traveled with. As the Good Doctor Hunter S. Thompson implores us, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
I know this is not always easy. As a cultural critic, it can be a challenge to stop attempting to analyze or even, follow a plot. It was Inland Empire that finally made me understand how to watch these films. “Do you want…to see?” whispers the tearful Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka) who prompts Laura Dern’s Nikki to burn a hole in a chemise with a cigarette. I saw, feeling the dam break as I finally submitted to Lynch taking me wherever he wanted to go. Because of this, Inland Empire is possibly my favorite film.
Beau Is Afraid is undoubtedly a similar type of ride. So much so that to even explain a small facet of the plot requires a hefty amount of back-peddling. Every action the anxiety-ridden, wayward, and woebegone protagonist Beau, played by Joaquin Phoenix who traded his grating Joker overacting for a more successful but no less physical interpretation of a character, takes (or doesn’t) is met with an equal reaction that pushes the plot to ridiculous and unforeseen territory. Let’s take the first part of the film: Beau is a pathetic virginal man living in a hideous urban environment filled with violent homeless people and drug addicts, including a naked murderer comically named Birthday Boy Stab Man. He’s surrounded by reminders of his overbearing businesswoman mother, Mona Wasserman, including his pathetic Hawaiian-Irish fusion TV dinner (“O’Loha” by MW). After bearing witness to Beau’s pulsating and deafening birth (an overdone birth scene is strong evidence of a cinematic ride), we see Beau handwringing to his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) about having to visit Mona on the anniversary of his father’s death (who we later learn died orgasming like all the men in his paternal line, at least according to Mona). His therapist writes him a new prescription with a stern reminder to always take the pills with water. Afterward, Beau runs through his neighborhood blight to return to his apartment building as if he’s dodging landmines, including TikTok-ers encouraging a jumper to fling himself from a building (which he does). Once he reaches home, he discovers a warning about a loose brown recluse spider taped to his door. Comforting! Though anticipating flying to Mama the next day, Beau oversleeps after a night of receiving angry noise complaints from a neighbor (though he is silent) who retaliates by cranking up the pounding bass. In a rush to pack and leave, his keys go missing. Fuck. He, then, takes his anxiety meds, only to discover the water is shut off in the building. He panics and books it to the bodega across the street where his credit card fails. All the while, as a consequence of wedging his front door open so he could return without his keys, he watches, shocked, as every crazy on the block storms into his apartment to host a blood-and-shit-splattered party. “You’re fucked, pal,” says his apartment building’s maintenance man, seemingly randomly. That’s for sure.
This is only the first half-hour or so. The rest of the two-and-a-half hours puts us in the passenger seat as Beau embarks on a new odyssey: attempting to return to his mother’s house now for her funeral after traumatically learning that her head has been obliterated by a chandelier through a call with the UPS guy who discovered her body. On this trek, which is also interspersed with flashbacks, repressed memory dream states, and cutsie animation, Beau runs naked through the streets and is mistaken by a nervous, trigger-happy cop for the Birthday Boy Stab Man, who then emerges to stab Beau in an approximation of the stigmata on his hands and side. He is also run over by an eerily eager couple Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane) who take him in as a replacement for their dead veteran son whose image they build nightly in jigsaw puzzle form. He’s not Grace and Roger’s only kid, adopted or biological, though. He’s terrorized by both their drugged-up, paint-swilling K-Pop fanatic biological daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers), and their PTSD-riddled veteran pseudo-son, Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), whose psychotic breaks cannot be controlled even with a heroic amount of sedatives. Beau also meets a woods-dwelling performance collective, The Orphans of the Forest, who put on a theatrical production about parental death, while hypnotizing Beau into an animated sequence by Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña depicting a better (but still less than ideal) life. Finally, he makes it to Mom’s cold rich lady house, gazes at her headless corpse in an open casket, and reunites with his long-lost flame, Elaine (the exquisite Parker Posey), who made him declare his faithfulness on a cruise ship as a feisty adolescent. He fucks to Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” He doesn’t die. He’s confronted by *SPOILER* his still-very-much-alive mother who Patti Lupone plays with such spitting rage that she immediately enters the canon of camp bad mothers. Mona chews up the scenery so much that I was just waiting for her to launch into “Rose’s Turn” (“I MAAAADE YOU”). Oh, yeah, then, there’s the small matter of the Penis Monster in the attic…
If your head is spinning, you’re not alone. On a recent episode of The Adam Friedland Show, comedian and cohost Nick Mullen praised the astoundingly nonsensical plotlines of Lifetime movies. “It’s like,” he says, “every Lifetime movie, they just open a document and go, ‘Whatever happens.’ That’s what kind of makes them the best movies. It’s sort of the jazz of filmmaking or at least storytelling. They’re always going off into different directions that don’t really follow.” This is a better description of Beau Is Afraid than I could ever muster. It’s as if Ari Aster just said (though I know he didn’t as this film has been years in the making starting with the initial 2011 short Beau): Whatever happens.
And the film is better off for it—zipping through one ambitiously shot scene to another, many of which seem to have little to do with one another (How the hell did we suddenly get embedded in some Ren fair in the woods?). It’s a captivating, engrossing, and often confounding viewing experience, not that you’d know it from some of the tepid movie reviews. The most confusing of which derives from critics who slam the film as boring. This includes The Guardian’s often spot-on film critic Peter Bradshaw who writes, “Ari Aster now unfortunately beckons us down the rabbit hole for a giant and epically pointless odyssey of hipster non-horror. Running at over three hours, Beau Is Afraid is a colossal recovered memory of mock Oedipal agony, which is scary, boring and sad in approximate proportions of 1 to 4 to 2.” He’s not alone. Richard Roeper in The Chicago Sun-Times also slanders the film as a “well-made bore.” How dare you!? Beau Is Afraid is many things, but a bore is not one of them.
I suspect part of the problem may be Beau Is Afraid’s uneasy balancing act between horror and comedy, its genre-traversing qualities leaving critics stymied and striving to take the film more seriously than it’s worth (which seems to be the go-to mode of criticism nowadays as critics yearn to wring some sort of sociopolitical meaning out of just about anything). Many of the negative, or middling, reviews point to the on-the-nose Oedipal/Freudian references scattered throughout the film. For instance, Roeper observes, “…Beau Is Afraid is a deep slog through a hallucinogenic Oedipal journey that never misses an opportunity to hit us over the head with obvious metaphors.” I mean, yeah. There is a Penis Monster. That’s not exactly subtle. Neither is Beau’s Defending Your Life-inspired final act.
This being Filthy Dreams, I’m sure you expect me to go on a long-winded rambling defense of the greater meaning that these critics are missing, digging deep into some analysis of the neurotic Jewish psyche that I am totally ill-equipped to speak to. That these Freudian mommy metaphors do, in fact, work, distilling some essential overarching theme that points to the film’s utmost importance. I’m not, though. The closest I’ll come is quoting Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart from their recently published book Anything That Moves, the subject of which can be guessed if you recognize the quote from Dennis Hopper’s Frank in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Stewart’s passage probably comes closest to articulating the psychosexual hangups that also exist within Beau Is Afraid. In Anything That Moves, Stewart describes the ever-present vision of their mother mid-fuck: “This was a problem for years and years. It wasn’t that I pictured my mom in any sexual capacity. It was that she would materialize to rate my performance, or hover over the bed while I tried to fuck whoever I was with in a way this mom ghost would approve of, or just be very present, mopping the floor and muttering about how pissed she was that I had come home from school to disturb her.” That about covers it.
Alternately, if you view Beau Is Afraid not as some psychoanalytic dissertation but as a ride, then you can, instead, appreciate its humor. Because if nothing else, Beau Is Afraid is funny, extremely so. This is a marked departure from Aster’s two previous feature-length films, which may also go a long way to explaining the hesitancy to fully embrace Beau as more comedy than horror by reviewers. 2018’s Hereditary remains one of the most consistently frightening films I’ve ever seen, projecting an unrelenting skin-crawling unease as occultic esoteric beliefs overtake a shattered grief-stricken nuclear family. Not to be outdone, 2019’s Midsommar trades Hereditary’s aesthetic darkness for homicidal (and suicidal) matriarchal cult practices conducted in the eternal Swedish sun. Neither one is exactly a barrel of laughs unless you count a grad school douchebag getting screamed at by a cult elder for pissing on the ancestral tree or the always-delightful Ann Dowd maniacally convincing Toni Collette in a parking lot that she conjured her dead grandson. This is not to say Beau Is Afraid departs from Aster’s previous features entirely. While certainly all three films concern horror as played out within a family system, Beau also contains a few direct throwbacks, whether humans skittering across the ceiling to the prevalence of head trauma. Yet, in Beau Is Afraid, headless bodies and crazies hiding in the ceiling are more sight gags than jump scares.
Like these gags, the humor in Beau Is Afraid appears on a few levels. First, there is broad physical comedy such as shellshocked Jeeves violently raging and rampaging against hypodermic needle-wielding Roger in the idyllic suburban background while Beau gets reemed out by his mother’s lawyer, Dr. Cohen, cast ingeniously as Richard Kind, or a heavily tattooed vagrant struggling with Beau’s microwave after breaking and entering his apartment. Then, there are the just-barely-subtler sight gags, including the zoom-in to a cartoonishly zombie-like portrait of Mona’s mother with green skin and a severe gaze that wouldn’t look out of place at Disney’s The Haunted Mansion. Perhaps the best use of comedy in the film, though, is what Aster calls “chicken fat,” which he explains as “the idea of jamming the background with as many gags as possible…And part of the fun for me was how many details we could cram into the frame.” As an example, he points out, “You see names of bands like ‘Anal Puke,’ ‘Death By Anal,’ ‘Murder By Fuck,’ ‘Butt Finger.’” Of the so-called chicken fat, I was particularly tickled by the gorgeous graffiti in Beau’s apartment lobby scrawled with lewd images and phrases like “Hail Satan. Shoot Dope. Kill Children. Fuck the Pope.” What an inspiring way to start the day! This is only surpassed by the name of the caterer for Mona’s funeral: Shiva Steve’s Grub for the Grieved. Perfection.
It should go without saying that Beau Is Afraid isn’t exactly a feel-good comedy for a wide audience. It’s a Kafkaesque Vantablack comedy, one that leaves the audience chuckling while also feeling overwhelmed with existential dread. In this, Beau Is Afraid has a lot in common with David Lynch’s Eraserhead. While Eraserhead focuses on the anxiety of new fatherhood in a dystopian black-and-white industrial environment rather than the technicolor dream-world of Beau, there are some distinct similarities in how both films filter the outsized anxiety of everyday life and relationships through not only nightmarish surrealism but a sense of the absurd. Beau Is Afraid even directly recalls a scene in Eraserhead where Jack Nance’s Henry Spencer rides his loud rumbling elevator. For Beau, his elevator is even more cataclysmic with a broken door and flaming wires. Yet, both characters stand centrally, stunned and paralyzed, as they return home. In fact, Joaquin Phoenix’s perpetually childlike, wide-eyed, and slack-jawed interpretation of Beau seems to owe quite a lot to Nance’s legendary performance as Henry, especially as both characters become increasingly untethered throughout the film.
Both Eraserhead and Beau Is Afraid’s worlds are exaggerated versions of our own; both also clearly built for the filmmakers to pour their own anxieties into. Like our own world, horror and anxiety work hand in hand. This isn’t always easy to digest. Even some of the grislier scenes like Grace attempting to do CPR on her daughter Toni post-paint-chugging have a morbid satirical bent. I know. It’s not for everyone. That being said, the fifteen or so people in the theater when I saw the film frequently roared with laughter. Notably, though, the only one loudly howling during the Penis Monster scene was me. Whatever.
This is not to say Beau Is Afraid is without fault (that introductory birth scene is pretentious enough to knock it down a couple of points in my book), but neither is any film that I would categorize as a ride. Often those flaws are woefully, delusionally, and hilariously bad decisions, outsized, directionless swings for the fences, that somehow make the film much more fun to watch. I mean, can you talk about Blonde without chuckling about the chatty fetus? I know I can’t. There is something exhilarating about filmmakers and other creators that push the limits of their medium while testing the patience of the audience, even if they fail or kill their careers in the process. It’s certainly more thrilling than trying to please a crowd. Yuck!
Is there a point to all this? Let’s find a point. I consider my unending undying love of cinematic rides in conversation with a classic Bill Hicks bit that closed his Revelations special. “The world is like a ride in an amusement park,” he says. “And when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills and it’s very brightly colored and it’s loud and it’s fun, for awhile.” He continues to point to people who have much invested in this ride with big bank accounts and “furrows of worry,” but at the end of the day: “It doesn’t matter…because it’s just a ride.” And if the world is a ride, our best films should be too.