Beau Is Afraid

We all agree here, unanimously, to a person, that Ari Aster is a great director with two undeniable modern horror classics to his name. And it goes without saying that A24 is a cool company that has produced many good and/or interesting movies*, and even if you weren’t into those it would be weird to have some kind of a grudge against them. Since we have always been on the same page about those things, I’m sure we also agree that it’s cool that the company now let Aster step outside of horror for a much more niche dark comedy with a budget the armchair bean-counters say they won’t be able to make back. And that it was worth every penny.

As much as I loved HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR, I actually didn’t think BEAU IS AFRAID was a sure bet for me. When I saw the trailer it looked visually impressive, but seemed to be going for a Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry type of thing. I love those two filmmakers (both together and separate), but it’s their one-of-a-kindness that makes them great. Even the best imitators of their stuff tend to feel hollow and disposable. Was Aster going to go from an original in horror to a copycat in… whatever genre this is?

When the movie first played to critics there was a funny incident where a box office/awards/muscle-selfie Youtuber guy called it “a career-killing film… what happens when studios cede full creative freedom to directors with reckless disregard for audiences outside themselves.” Of course it’s in my bones to root for a movie that outrages anti-art, movies-as-sports types who un-self-consciously type the words “full creative freedom” as a negative, so this got me a little more excited. Whatever the movie was, no matter how terrible, we could all celebrate its existence just because it bothered that particular bozo so much.

But now that I’ve seen it I’m happy to report that it’s also really fuckin good. Or at least I loved it. Joaquin Phoenix (SPACE CAMP, U TURN) stars as Beau Wasserman, a timid, mumbly man living alone in an apartment on a block that would scare off the creeps from DEATH WISH 3. He’s about to fly out to visit his mother, Mona (Patti Lupone [1941] in the present, Zoe Lister-Jones [writer/director of THE CRAFT: LEGACY] in flashbacks), on the anniversary of his father’s death. That sounds like a normal start to a movie, but even the simple first step of going to the airport is thwarted by that thing where you leave your keys in the door for a second and they get stolen, and then you swallowed a new medication that must be taken with water but you forgot the plumbing was turned off in your building so you run across the street to get a bottle of water but while you have the door propped open dozens of scary weirdos invade your apartment and have a huge orgy which you watch all night from outside the window and the next day there’s a dead guy out front and the place is destroyed with shit smeared on the walls and a shoe penetrating your laptop screen but the water’s back on so you take a bath but then you realize there’s a sweaty, terrified guy on the ceiling above you. And also you know your mom won’t be sympathetic about all of this causing you to miss your flight. You can imagine where the plot would go from there.

A previous divisive movie this reminded me of a little was Darren Aranofsky’s mother!, because it has that feeling of a fever dream of endlessly escalating frustration. But it does switch locations several times, from the hellhole apartment to the upper middle class home of a surgeon (Nathan Lane, NUTCRACKER: THE UNTOLD STORY) and his wife (Amy Ryan, MONSTER TRUCKS) who run over Beau and decide to keep him as a patient/guest/captive, then to a forest where a troupe of nomadic self-described orphans perform experimental theater, then to his mom’s stylish modern mansion. And meanwhile his various injuries, medications and traumas send him into memories and hallucinations, raising mysteries about a childhood crush, the true identity of his father, something weird going on in the attic (just like HEREDITARY), and his belief that a heart murmur will kill him if he ever has an orgasm.

The bigger differences from mother!, though, are that its allegories don’t seem quite as cryptic, and that it’s much, much funnier. It’s a very rare and specific type of humor that’s right up my alley. Beau is this hapless sap, muttering passively at increasingly insane indignities, invasions of chaos into normalcy, and after it’s gone on for nearly 3 hours and dug further into the weeds of very ugly mother-son relationship troubles, Aster decides to throw a bone to anyone who’s bored (not me) by introducing a giant penis monster. Another really audacious bit of tonal daredevilry is when, in the midst of a long, grim stream of maternal grievance, Mona references her own mother and gestures to a comically goofy portrait on the wall. Got a big laugh in my crowd, and not just from me.

There’s another impressive joke I want to discuss, from the same section of the movie, and I will mark this paragraph as a SPOILER not just for the joke or the plot developments but for a cast member I did not know about in advance. After Beau arrives too late for a memorial service another person arrives late. To him, holy shit, it’s Elaine, his first and only love from when he was a teenager. To us holy shit, it’s Parker Posey, the undisputed queen of ‘90s indie cinema, as well as co-star with Triple-H in BLADE: TRINITY and INSIDE OUT. I won’t detail their strange interactions except to say that they end up in bed together and there’s a shot of her naked on top of him, and I will just speak honestly as a heterosexual male of a specific age, that my thought process went like this:

Whoah, is that really—
[eyes scan down far enough to notice Beau’s enormous balls, which were referenced in a seeming non-sequitur conversation much earlier]
[choking on laughter about balls]

I can’t think of another scene to use that exact type of whiplash. It’s another great cinematic achievement for the anti-sex scene people to consider, as well as for the people who used to argue with me that all the humor I loved in HEREDITARY was me laughing at a very serious movie by a humorless pretentious guy. (No hard feelings but I was right, okay?)

BEAU is about many things. Obviously the title refers to fear. The world of the movie is an expressionistic depiction of things he’s afraid of, from regular stress about the craziness of the modern world, to the challenges of shit that life throws at you on a bad day, to specific anxieties he’s trying to address with his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson, RED HOOK SUMMER). To me the funniest stuff is his apocalyptic vision of city life as a war zone where he’s constantly under attack by homeless mentally ill people, some with face tattoos, some naked. It’s the closest thing to a politically loaded subject in the movie, I think, because it mirrors how Republicans have been imagining “Democrat cities” in recent years as they exacerbate the housing, addiction and mental healthcare crises by empowering corporations, removing regulations, defunding social services, demonizing the victims, and spending money that should be spent to help them on cops who harass, beat, and kill them and pretend not to know why that doesn’t make anyone’s lives better.

I didn’t take the movie to be saying anything about that. I think this is just how a guy raised by Beau’s mom would see the city. But there’s an intense scene early on where Beau has been scared out of his bathtub into the street by an intruder (Peter Seaborne), and a nervous cop (Michael Esper, THE DROP, RESURRECTION) almost shoots him, mistaking him for a neighborhood terror (Bradley Fisher, “Stage Manager,” one episode of Perfect Strangers) dubbed “The Birthday Boy Stab Man” by the media. Easy mix up, since Beau is another troubled guy having an episode while naked in the street. But we know Beau is a person who needs help, not a monster that needs to be put down, and should remember that the same is true of the other guy.

By the way, in the suburbs and even the woods he’s in just as much danger, bullied by a drugged out teenage girl named Toni (Kylie Rogers, COLLATERAL BEAUTY) and chased by a PTSD-suffering vet named Jeeves (Denis Menochet, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS). And the most horrific part of the movie is Beau’s CEO mother, a real puzzle box of issues and cruelties, a crushing force even when she’s just on the phone not talking, tormenting her son with extravagantly long pauses and heartless non-responses to his pleas for motherly sympathy, support, or advice.

It would be hard to see this and not wonder what’s up with Aster and his mom. I hesitated to find out, but Vulture looked into the subject and determined that he appears to have a good relationship with his mom, a poet who explores similarly dark themes in her work. Strange.

Some have claimed that the movie is 3 hours long, which is total bullshit, it’s actually only 2 hours and 59 minutes. Be happy – Aster originally threatened 4 hours. I know some people are never not gonna be scared off by a long running time like that, as is their right, and in many cases their loss. I won’t defend it except to say that it worked for me as a prolonged (in a good way) experience. There’s possibly even a joke about it here, as (HUGE END SPOILER I SUPPOSE) the finale has Beau on trial in a stadium filled with water. He’s in a boat and it flips over and before he’s even finished drowning we can see many people filing for the exits.

So my impression that this would be like a Charlie Kaufman movie wasn’t entirely off. It doesn’t use a clever, catchy premise like most of Kaufman’s movies, but some of the so-bleak-it-starts-to-be-funny type humor did remind me tonally of SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. And I guess maybe there’s some Kaufman-esque mind-trippery to the scene where we learn that Mona’s control over Beau’s life extends as far as apparently designing the packaging for the microwave dinner he ate at the beginning. The Gondry comparison is less apt, because there’s just no whimsy in this movie, not even in the cool animated sequence (done by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, the Chilean animators behind the movie THE WOLF HOUSE). It’s just not that kind of party.

I’ve also seen BEAU compared to SOUTHLAND TALES. Both are ambitious, shamelessly excessive, don’t-give-a-fuck big swings by weirdo directors, both express how crazy the world feels through imaginative world-building, and mix close-to-the-bone emotion with some broad silliness. To me BEAU works much better, but I don’t take the comparison as an insult, even if it was meant as one.

In my experience, many of the people who get worked up about A24 movies think the people who like them are falsely accusing them of not being smart enough to like them. I do wish some people would be more open-minded and adventurous in their viewing, but I don’t think not liking this makes anybody dumb. There are all kinds of things that could potentially make it off-putting, not the least of which is that Beau is a character who defies the usual likable/unlikable dichotomy. He’s the opposite of charismatic, he’s frustratingly passive and helpless, he does not at some point dig in to a hidden well of courage or heroism. But he doesn’t turn out to be an asshole either – he doesn’t really give you a reason to hate him. He’s just a schmuck who gets knocked around like a pinball until he goes down the drain. Almost literally.

What are you supposed to think of him, if anything? I don’t know. I both related to him a little (because we all feel like useless messes in over our heads sometimes) and was a little disgusted by him (because we have those 2 hours and 59 minutes to see him never rally to get his shit together). He’s absolutely pathetic, but not in an “oh, my sweet little angel, too delicate for this world” sort of way. We’re allowed to feel bad for him and also laugh about some of the horrendous shit life dumps on him. We’re all human. We’re all in this together. I wouldn’t mind him laughing if it happened to me.

I don’t consider it a flaw that there are aspects of this movie I’m not sure what to make of, but if it was, those flaws would be far overshadowed by just how fucking funny it is to me. In addition to the straight up jokes and funny situations, there are so many little details that make me laugh: That the numbers in his phone memory are MOM, THERAPIST, LOCKSMITH, and MOVIEFONE. That for some reason this family who kidnapped him have silk pajamas that are not his size but do have his name monogrammed on the pocket. That the hallways of his apartment are covered in the filthiest graffiti imaginable, and a poster for some band that says “ANAL DEATH – MURDER BY FUCK,” but in the middle of all of it somebody scrawled “Kiss my grits.” It will be fun to look at this closer on video, because every time I noticed a billboard, book, magazine or newspaper in the frame it had something funny or weird on it.

So if you want to see a movie that’s deeply funny in a dark and original way, and also very weird and surreal and unsettling, and that you might find pretty exhausting and/or overstuffed, but that also has some some goofy fake dicks and balls, I happily recommend BEAU IS AFRAID. I thought it was great!

*including, but not limited to, in chronological order of release:


This entry was posted on Monday, May 15th, 2023 at 7:21 am and is filed under Reviews, Comedy/Laffs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Beau Is Afraid”

  1. Oddly enough the main reason why I don’t wanna watch it (for now) is that after everything I’ve heard so far about it, it pretty much makes me wanna ragequit. It sounds like the kind of story that I would love and try to put on paper (possibly film too) for DECADES and CJ is afraid that I watch it and think “Fuck that, I’ll never be that good”.

  2. I know what you’re thinking, but nope. Not taking the bait. I have been on a journey of discovery, my friends, and I have accepted that movies have changed, and many of the feted styles of the day I find tedious and unpleasant. This is not a new phenomenon, as I’m sure fans of Rock Hudson movies found little in the grim and gritty 70s to enjoy, nor did devotees of 70s realism find much to cherish in 80s escapism, and on and on to the present. It is a privilege to live a long enough life to have art outgrow you, and I will rage about it no longer. This movie is not for me, was never for me, will never be for me. Getting upset about it is like those people who can’t seem to sleep at night because somebody out there is putting pineapple on pizza or ketchup on a hot dog. A year ago I would have been up for a fight but now I have laid down my weapons. I am at peace.

    Transformers 3 - That is the old me (HD)

    Funny scene from Transformers 3

  3. Matthew Miller

    May 15th, 2023 at 8:54 am

    Vern, I think you hinted at this with the attic line, but by the time the funeral rolled around, it became pretty clear to me that the basic idea for this movie probably predated HEREDITARY, and my guess is that HEREDITARY was Aster’s attempt at a more commercial take on many of the same themes.

  4. “This movie is not for me, was never for me, will never be for me.”

    My feelings exactly. While it sounds like it could be interesting in a “what if Terry Gilliam and Pedro Almodovar were the same person?” kind of way, I am 99.999% sure that will not be what actually materializes on the screen. Plus, I don’t like Joaquin Phoenix. Never have. BUT…I have achieved the same type of Zen Majestyk describes in the sentence above. For me, it’s mostly about music — I no longer need to have an opinion about mainstream pop, or indie rock, or even current hip-hop, because they’re Not For Me. I stick to my lanes (jazz, death metal, modern classical) and I’m happy.

    Whoever gets pleasure from this movie — I’m happy for you. It’s Not For Me. But I did like MIDSOMMAR.

  5. I’m guessing this is social media thing since this is the first I’ve heard of it, but there’s currently detractors of entire studios? Like how audiences would boo and walk out at the sight of the Columbia logo in 1933?

  6. What about the movies they only distributed (which was all they did between 2013-17, the first movie they actually produced was Moonlight)? Are those half-hated?

  7. Sorry for the triple post. but my first question about this ‘studio’ hatred was “is this even possible nowadys??”
    I used the link above and randomly clicked on a non-A24 produced entry, “The Spectacular Now”. It was produced by 21 Laps Entertainment, an “independent” production company whose primary investor is Fox

    So at what point does it become an “A24” movie? When they buy distribution rights?

  8. I see it as progress that super oh so smart filmmakers are turning these things into dramas/dark comedies and not trying to market them as horror. Evil Dead Rise reminded us that horror has chainsaws in it. We can’t go back to domestic dramas with five minutes of ghosts.

  9. Matthew – That’s very possible. I haven’t seen it, but he did a short in 2011 called Beau, and this is what IMDb says it’s about: “A neurotic middle-aged man’s trip to visit his mother is delayed indefinitely when his keys are mysteriously taken from his door. He is subsequently haunted by an increasingly sinister chain of upsetting events. (Although it is not made apparent in the film, it should be said that Beau once used a Ouija board.)”

  10. jojo – There actually are people who seem to hate any A24 movie on sight, but I included that bit just to tease some of the regulars over previous controversies we’ve had here, and in those cases they are really using “A24” as shorthand for what some people call “elevated horror,” not really for movies that are necessarily made by that company.

  11. Mr Majestyk has found peace! And we were there to witness it. This is one for the campfire box of topics. Jokes aside, I’m genuinely happy for you, man.

  12. I got mother! vibes too because both are exponentially surreal depictions of very real phenomena. mother! is a about gaslighting and how every time you think this is it, they can’t possibly excuse this, they do and dump something even bigger on you. Beau is about how everything in the world is a potential threat, or could be to someone extremely sensitive or vulnerable. Good stuff.

  13. Oh, I have heard people use the term “a24 horror” before, come to think of it. I thought it was some sub-genre I wasn’t familiar with (I remember a person described a movie as as “competent post-slasher” completely seriously to me. I was like “uh… Am I supposed to know what the fuck that means? Cause I don’t”). I never put together it meant ‘horror as produced by a24’. I’m guessing there’s a house style…

  14. dreadguacamole

    May 16th, 2023 at 9:53 am

    Competent post-slashers are a subgenre of competence porn spliced with post modern something else (so, post/). So you could have a competent post-slash-panic-attack, which would be Mother! if Jennifer Lawrence was extremely good at problem solving and couldn’t be bothered by the stupid shit her husband does. “Huh, you killed the baby? That’s ok, we have spares. I expected that and whipped up a cloning machine with leftover scraps from the house remodelling tools.”
    Or competent (post/pre)+mullet, which gives you MacGyver.
    It’s pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Also, spoiler alert for Mother!

    I do get why they piss people off, but personally I’ve liked most A24 horror movies I’ve seen. Plus, people are still making normal horror movies, so win/win! I was way more annoyed by the 90s teen-friendly horror trend started by SCREAM, or the 00s gnarly, dingy inyerfayce!! trend started by HOSTEL (though that led to some great stuff.) If this is the modern version of that, we’ve got it pretty good.

  15. Have not been able to muster much enthusiasm for this sort of self-indulgent neuroticism of late (save for my own!), and I am on record as a fan of SYNECHDOCHE, NY. That said, it does my heart good to hear the thing-ification of “competence porn.” This gets me to wondering how far we can press the pornification of this and that. “Denim porn”? “Slowcooker porn?” “Vinyl siding porn?” “Thrifty living advice porn?” Truly, I got a good chuckle out of competence porn.

  16. I saw Beau a long time ago but don’t remember it real well. Bet it’s back out there now, might have to find it.

    Movie looks interesting, not sure about that running time. But after seeing the trailer it makes sense, because it totally seems like a remake of fucking Reflections of Evil.

  17. Hey Bernd.
    The only Thing that bothered me with it was that feeling that i got and that i could’nt shake Off:
    I am almost sure that Ari Aster is disgusted by Beau as his main chsracter giving him nothing but pure hate as it seems. Maybe it’s a self therapeutic thing but i don’t know. It seemed a little much for me. He never grants that poor bastard even one tiny cathartic moment. No Mercy all the way.

  18. Sorry for the Bernd.
    Vern has been transformed by my auto correction.

  19. Change approved!

    Sorry Vern, you are Bernd now.

  20. It’s always interesting when I see a movie with an audience and have a completely different experience than 90% of everyone else. My audience turned on this early but I enjoyed it for what it was — an anxiety nightmare from start to finish. I don’t think you can anything in the movie literally and the answer to the question “why did that just happen?” is because it’s the worst possible thing that could happen to Beau at that moment. My audience was furious when this thing ended and I was just Robert De Niro-Cape Fear laughing at the audacious of it all. The last time this happened it was the opposite—during “Spider-Man: No Way Home” I was crawling out of my sling at how lazy, soulless and empty this corporate nostalgia-mining was but everyone else was eating up with a spoon. Give me Beau being attacked by a giant penis monster any day.

  21. *skin, not sling — ducking auto-correct

  22. I haven’t had the chance to see this yet, but I did see THE SHOW last night, which seems apropos.

    Yeah, the title is about as generic as hell, but it’s Alan Moore’s brain-baby, and I kind of loved it. Like BEAU, it’s a surrealistic comedy, though (from what I gather of BEAU) much less self-consciously reputable – it’s more of an occult-laden noir sort of deal, one that actually ends up making sense, kinda, but never takes itself seriously.

    It’s not perfect, but if you’re in the market for a movie where there’s an Eastenders-style soap opera called Wittgenstein’s terrace where a shouting match devolves into epistemological debate… well, I don’t think you have any other choice.

    On a more related note: A friend recently emailed me out of nowhere with the title BEAU IS AFRAID, all in caps, and the mail was (translated): DUUUUUUUUUDE!!! DUUUUUUUUUDE!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
    (I’m leaning towards interpreting that he didn’t enjoy it)

  23. Well, I didn’t expect this to be one of my favorites of the year, but here we are. Is it bad that the two movie characters of recent years that I’ve most identified with have been Pearl from PEARL and now Beau, the eponymous scaredy-cat?

    This absolutely deranged odyssey through one man’s anxieties really resonated with me. Here’s a put-upon, hypochondriac schmuck afraid of the world, afraid of relationships, afraid to make a decision, having been ground down by the active, passive, micro, and macro aggressions of a parent and the disappointments of life/society, dreaming of an impossible future, being driven even crazier by the world around him. Sorry if this sounds like a confession, but– I can relate.

    Also, it’s just a gonzo movie that is gross, hilarious, and surreal, so it’s a fun watch. The three hours flew by, which also surprised me. The only bit I’m unsure about is the ending, though I am also unsure what would work better for me.

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