Director's Past Work
Ari Aster is a well-established director in the horror genre and A24 fan base, most best known for his 2018 film Hereditary. He has also made Midsommar and the short film The Strange Thing about the Johnsons. I had a stupid phase where I'd try to watch “the most disturbing movies” for a while. I’ve seen what was supposed to be the worst of the worst (A Serbian Film and every movie like it) but The Strange Thing About the Johnsons was the most gut-wrenching film I've ever seen... and it was a short film. According to Aster, Beau Is Afraid is a passion project he's been waiting to make which had me absolutely horrified going into the film.
In the articles I write I don't usually like to give a horrendous amount of description but for this film, every little detail is incredibly important to the plot.
The film opens with Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) speaking with his therapist/psychiatrist (Stephen McKinley Henderson). He, in a clearly emotionally shut down state, expresses his anxiety about visiting his mother the next day and that he had “the dream” again. Beau's father died before he ever got to meet him. To help with his anxiety, he's prescribed a new medication that has to be taken with water. Beau makes his way home in the city passing through a world of absolute chaos and violence. People on the street brutally beating each other, hard verbal fights, uncomfortable unclothed strangers, and overall unsettling weird people. He buys a little clay figure of a mother holding a baby as a gift for his mom. His apartment building is run down horribly graphic graffiti decorating the walls among filth and broken glass. On his door is a flyer warning tenants about an infestation of highly deadly spiders. He heats up dinner and watches the news that shows a broadcast warning the viewer about a naked man recently stabbing three strangers to death in his neighborhood. After staring at an old Polaroid of a young girl that says Elaine, he falls asleep but periodically gets woken up by a neighbor slipping notes under his door pleading that Beau (who’s silently sleeping) needs to turn down his music. Sleep-deprived, the next morning he prepares for his flight. His keys and luggage miraculously get stolen and he begins to have a terrible panic attack. He calls his mom and asks what he should do. Passive aggressively she doesn't give him a straight answer; she thinks he's trying to avoid visiting.
Unsure what to do, Beau takes his medication but struggles to find any water available in his apartment. All of the faucets don’t work due to the building cutting off the water supply entirely. He panics because he needs water for these meds or else bad side effects will occur but without his keys, he can't lock his apartment or get back into the apartment building. After propping the apartment building's entrance open with a phone book, he makes a run for the convenience store directly across the street; strangers immediately start chasing and harassing him. He frantically drinks water and attempts to pay but his card keeps getting declined. He frantically rummages through his wallet and peers back to see the street once full of strangers now all piling into the apartment building. They all head up to his apartment and absolutely trash the place, breaking his appliances and getting into murderous fights. Beau sleeps outside on the fire escape and awakens to a trashed, but empty apartment.
Starting a bath, he calls his mom and receives no answer. He calls again. A young man picks up stating he’s a UPS guy (Bill Hader) who entered the home of a woman after he found the house door open and a rotten smell. He asks Beau to explain what his mom looks like. Beau says she has brown eyes and reddish hair. The young man asks him to describe her body due to the fact the woman has a chandelier where her head should be in a room with brains splattered everywhere. It is indeed his mother, Mona Wasserman (Patti LuPone). Beau drops his phone and stands in place for hours eventually getting out of the state when water reaches his feet. He gets into the overfilled bath in shock. A drip comes from the ceiling. He looks up and finds a man softly crying pressing his hands against the walls holding himself up. A spider crawls on the man's face, his expression grows more and more distressed. The man falls directly onto Beau and they both struggle in the bath attempting to drown the other. Beau escapes and runs out onto the streets naked in horror looking for help. He finds a cop and begs for help. The cop draws his gun and demands Beau to drop his weapon (the small ceramic sculpture he bought his mother). He complies and the cop repeats “Don't make me do this”, shaking his gun at harmless Beau. Beau makes a run for it and gets hit by a car, bouncing off the windshield onto the street. Barely conscious, the previously referenced naked stabbing murder on the news stabs Beau in the stomach and repeatedly in the hands. His vision goes black.
He meets the rest of Grace's family Roger (Nathan Lane), her husband, a talented surgeon; Toni (Kylie Rogers), her teen daughter who resents Beau for taking her room; Jeeves (Denis Menochet), a soldier who fought beside Grace's deceased son in the military. The family very visibly has barely recovered from the death of their son. Toni is seen coming home on a Saturday grabbing two prescription pill bottles and saying she's going to school. It seems as if her parents are very aware that Toni has been abusing prescription drugs. Beau gets in contact with a person who was close with his mother whos very frustrated with him, angrily saying how his mom's final wish was for Beau to be there when she gets buried and they can't bury her until Beau comes. This distresses him greatly and sends him into a panic. While this phone call happens, Jeeves is having a PTSD attack, ominously roaming around the backyard like a battlefield. Grace explains it away by saying he's a hero but had to stop serving because he started shooting members of his squad's dead bodies in the jungle. Beau starts insisting that he needs to leave and take a flight immediately. Roger volunteers to drive him the next day.
The next morning comes and Roger gets a call he has to perform emergency surgery on a victim of a skiing accident, Grace also can’t miss work, and they say they’ll drive him the next day. Beau is left home alone with Toni for the entire day. Amidst some emotional breakdown, Toni and her friend yell at Beau to get in her car and says her dad told her to drive him home. He gets in. Her friend starts recording Beau and Toni hands him what seems to be a lit blunt. Beau has absolutely no interest in it and is scared. Toni says that she’ll rip her scalp off and blame Beau if he doesn't take a hit. They make him take one long hit. He struggles to breathe and asks what's in it. She simply replies, “Three things.” Spontaneously Beau begins to have a horrific trip, showing unsettling imagery of an empty room with an attic door on the ceiling. It goes into a flashback of Beau on a cruise as a teen.
He’s sharing a meal with his mother and spots the only other kid his age on the cruise, a beautiful girl. His mom mentions that his dad died because of/in the middle of Beau’s conception. She warns him not to have sex or he’ll die as well. Later that night the same girl bangs on his door (along with every neighbor nearby) screaming there's a dead guy in the pool. He answers and they stare at the floating body in the water. She introduces herself as Elaine and asks Beau to take her picture with the body. They talk about how their moms are difficult and they’ve never been with anyone romantically or sexually before. They kiss. Later that night Beaus is asleep in bed with his mom and Elaine breaks in screaming about how her mom is taking her away. Her mom barges in and grabs Elaine, taking her away. She leaves Beau with the picture and a message on the back asking him to wait for her. The flashback is interrupted by mildly abstract shots showing Beau’s messed up perception of time and where he is.
He wakes up in the corner of the living room cowering. Gracie hands him a remote and cryptically tells him to turn to a specific channel. On the channel is a live stream of a camera in the corner of the living room. Beau fast forwards through it and Toni walks in on video, not too soon after she actually walks in. Toni is able to get alone with Beau and makes him come with her to her dead brother's room. She absolutely hates that her parents refuse to move on. With two big buckets of paint, she tries to pressure Beau into painting all over her brother's very precious possessions. He refuses. He sloppily paints Beau on the wall with bright pink paint. Then she tries to make Beau “get f***ed up with her” by drinking paint. Of course, he refuses.
In defiance, she chugs as much paint as she can. He screams for help. Grace barges in and Toni collapses dead. Grace screams at Beau saying he killed her other child and that he’s a demon trying to take the place of her son. He runs away into the woods. She orders Jeeves to hunt Beau down using his ankle health monitor which doubles as a tracking device. They run through the woods. Beau eventually runs into a tree and knocks himself unconscious.
He awakes at night and finds a pregnant woman with a slash light wandering around. He asks her for help. She very kindly leads him to her community, a group of people that migrate from forest to forest living off the land. Today is their last day in their area so they're putting on their annual play ceremony and Beau is welcome to join. She leads him around introducing him to everyone, pointing out that the creator of the village is sitting on a wooden platform and there’s a shrine beneath him. They all settle down and take their seats awaiting the play to start. Beau gifts the woman the statue he originally bought for his mother.
The play begins with a man (played by some random village person) in the woods having a conversation with an angel about leaving his home. With an axe, he chops off the chains holding his feet to the floor. All of a sudden the actor is replaced with Beau and the world now resembles the stages set. He begins a long trek through many different terrains. He eventually finds the love of his life (a woman identical to the one that found him in the woods) and they start a life together. They live in a cute little village among other families. He raises three beautiful sons. One day a horrible storm sweeps through the town and separates him from his sons and wife. He searches for years and years for his family. He grows old. Famished and tired he finds a small village in the woods and decides to spend his last dollar to see the play they're putting on. The play shows a woman reading a story to three men about how brave their father was. It heavily resembles Beau’s journey and his life as a father. The story she's reading is now about the present situation, she reads that their father will stand and exclaim “This story’s about me!” Just as she says this, Beau does it. The three men look over and recognize their dad. Sobbing they reunite and to his disbelief, the boys tell him that their mom also got separated from them in the storm. Beau mentions how he's never had sex before and his son asks “How did you have us?” Horrified and confused Beau stands in shock.
He snaps back to reality as his real self, sitting watching a play. A man approaches Beau and looks at him amusingly. He asks Beau if he recognizes him. He doesn’t. The man tells Beau that his father is still alive and that he cleaned him up and fed him. Their conversation is interrupted by an explosion in the middle of the theater and Jeeves shooting everyone he can with an automatic. Beau runs away. Jeeves shoots a villager, falls onto the gun, and accidentally shoots himself repeatedly in the chest. On his tracking app, he presses a button that leads to Beau’s ankle monitor and it softly explodes and falls off. He escapes to a local road and catches a ride all the way to his mother's house.
He finds that he missed the funeral entirely and the house is empty. His mother is in an open casket headless; Beau sentimentally stares at her. A woman enters the home. She spots Beau and apologizes for getting the funeral time wrong and that she's sorry for his loss. Beau does say anything back to her and uncomfortably, she awkwardly goes outside to call an Uber. He follows her. Perplexed he says, “Elaine?” It's her. They kiss and embrace and immediately the love was rekindled. Very directly she leads him to the bedroom. Beau is horrified because he doesn't want to end up dead like his father. At no point does she ask what he wants to do or if this situation is ok. They have intercourse and very terrified Beau lives but Elaine dies from it. Her body becomes unmovably stiff and her eyes are red – bloodshot.
A voice comes from the bedroom’s bathroom. It says that it saw everything. The figure emerges. It's his mother, alive and well. Two maintenance people walk in and remove her, taking her into another room.
She screams at him for quite some time. She mentions that her mom never loved her so she loved Beau as much as she could. Mona insists that Beau never appreciated her and he's selfish when in reality, he’s just an independent person with boundaries. She yells at him for having relations in her bed when he thought she died. Beau confesses he knows that she wasn't really dead once he saw the casket. The body had a birthmark on the hand that the housekeeper that help raise Beau had. A door opens and Beau's therapist walks out. Mona and the therapist have been working together for years. They all sit together and the therapist plays clips of recordings from old therapy sessions. Mona berates him for speaking about her in a non-flattering way. Beau opens up about his recurring dream (mentioned in the first scene) about the attic and taking a bath.
It cuts to the point of view of little boy Beau (around 5-7 years old) in the bath, watching his mom try to force an identical version of him into the bath. The boy refuses and she grabs him and takes him into the other room. She pulls down the attic door and makes the boy go up and shuts the door.
It goes back to the angry conversation between Beau and Mona. He demands the truth. He needs to know what actually happened to his father. She gives in, yells that wasn't a dream it was a memory, and pulls down the attic stairs. He goes up and she locks him in. With a flashlight, he slowly looks around. A malnourished identical Beau is changed up holding out a bowl. Before Beau gets the chance to help him, a loud roar comes from the other corner. Standing there was a monstrous beast in the form of a penis… his father. It has sharp teeth and spider-looking hands/claws. The window on the opposite side of the attic breaks and Jeeves busts through firing an automatic everywhere. He shoots at the beast but gets impaled in the head with one of its claws. Beau rushes for the door and falls onto the floor.
He confronts his mother, and yet again she yells at him. He chokes her, but lets go before she's completely deprived of oxygen. He profusely apologizes saying he didn't mean to. She gasps for air before falling onto a glass table and dying.
He flees to the side of the house and gets in a small motor boat and rides off into some body of water. He rides through a cave and comes out on the other to find himself in the center of an amphitheater. Thousands of people look down at him. On a podium, his mother stands with a lawyer. Beau is in the midst of a trial of his life. On the jumbotrons they project different memories/instances where the mother believes she was wronged. On the opposite side of the amphitheater is a second podium with Beau's defense lawyer who wasn’t given a mic. He yells but can’t be heard too well. The lawyer falls off his podium onto a massive rock, dying on impact. Beau tries to get off of the boat but his feet are stuck. He can’t move. He pleases for help. The motor catches on fire. The flame grows until harshly explodes throwing the boat over. Beau struggles for air, feet still stuck to the boat, and he violently tries to get untethered. The audience slowly leaves, unphased. The shaking of the boat fades into complete stillness.
What does this all mean? Is it a good movie??
Something I hear quite often criticizing media being mass-produced is, “There’s nothing that hasn't already been made already”. Beau is Afraid single-handedly disproved that. In its own twisted unique way, it showed me things I’ve never seen or thought of before. The entire ‘play section’ of the film is absurdly beautiful in how it tells its story; the visuals and the story itself are insanely gorgeous. The use of odd mixed media sticks with the viewer. Everything about the film is just so weird, in the best way possible.
The amount of effort that was solely put into defining the world Beau lives in is admirable. So much time and careful choices really gave the viewer a very defined intoxicating reality.
The scene where Toni makes Beau smoke that mystery drug nearly sent me into a panic attack. The dialogue and the tension so harshly conveyed the horribly disgusting vibe of the situation. It was intensely immersive and did an accurate job of passing time abstractly, properly inducing great fear. I felt genuinely nauseous after watching that man fall from the ceiling. I quite literally could've never expected that or imagined it. Thanks for the new fear Aster!
Ari Aster really gave into every urge he's ever had with this film, which is a good and a bad thing. Coming out of the film I was overjoyed and of course, confused. The film up until the play was unsettling in how it stands on the line between insane fictitiousness and reality. It took a long time to build an insane world and establish this family. The second half from the play and even more so towards the end it feels like a different movie almost. It strays really far out into the nonsensical aspects that the first half used to its advantage instead of using entirely. The two biggest instances of the movie turning into nonsense is the attic. The monster in the attic and Jeeves jumping through the window after being shown (brutally) dead. There was no possibility of living through what happen to Jeeves they didn't try to hide the major wound so there's no room for a scream 6 fake out. I can say for sure that there's a 0% chance that that monster is real and has any possibility of being Beau's father. Aster was probably trying to make a metaphorical point but feel like it was missed and came off as being shock horror. I really don't appreciate shock horror/comedy (unless it's Eric Andre); it’s mildly cheap.
The reason why Midsommar and Hereditary are so good is because of what the meaning boils down to, toxic relationships deteriorating, and a family grieving and falling apart. Both films show in depth what this means for the characters so thoroughly, it's awful(ly amazing). Beau is afraid feels like it tried doing the same thing but didn't succeed. The film felt very one note. The things and events that the films trying to bring attention to are screamed over and over with no new information. The arguing near the end of the movie between Beau and Mona didn't give the viewer anything new. It was quite literally the same subject being repeated with no difference. Not every film needs a comprehensible message but I always tend to prefer one being present.
Possible mental illnesses
In order to look at the film’s small parts it's important to address Beau's mental state. The director seems to purposefully set up the clashing ideas of… A. Beau is hallucinating, has multiple very bad mental illnesses, and he’s actually perceiving the world to be scary when it's not; or B. Beau has depression anxiety or both and lives in a very violent scary world thats damaged him. Taking into consideration the sheer amount of insane things that happen to this poor man in such a small amount of time in the beginning, it makes me feel like I know that he has paranoid schizophrenia from the start. Paranoid schizophrenia, in short, is defined as being a mass amount of delusions and hallucinations that blur the lines between reality and the person's mind.
Symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia are:
Seeing, hearing, or tasting things that other people don’t
Suspicious fear of what other people's intentions are
Determined persistent unusual thoughts and/or beliefs
Difficulty thinking clearly
Withdrawing from family or friends
A significant decline in self-care
Paranoid schizophrenia triggers are often provoked by major life events. In this case, Beau is dealing with reconnecting with his mother, the death of his mother, a huge medical accident, change of location, finding his soulmate after years of being apart, realizing his moms actually alive again, figuring out his dads still alive, meeting two possible beings that could potentially be his father, killing his mom, and finally finding his therapist was fake. All of those things could be considered major events in one's life solely because all of them are drastic changes. Anyone ever would be stressed out of their mind but this could also be amplifying his symptoms to the max.
The best instance we get to see if Beau has always had paranoid schizophrenia or if it’s his current environment in addition to stress - is when he was a teenager on the cruise. He appears to be between the ages of 15 and 17. Symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia typically show up in the person's late 20s to 30s. It’s beyond rare for it to start showing symptoms at 13 and a little less rare to start at 18. Due to his age, there’s no way to know if he showed similar symptoms then as he does now in his 40s. The flashbacks do allow us to see that he's always been to some degree panicked.
Of course, Ari Aster loves to mess with his audience so the answer will always go unknown / up to interpretation. I personally chose to believe he has severe paranoid schizophrenia, anxiety, and most likely a mix of PTSD (inflicted by his mother).
My personal takeaway in the first half of the film from Beau's character was the film is trying to put the viewer into his point of view, a grown man whose worldview is completely frayed due to his severe anxiety given to him by his mother and guilt involving sex. The concept is extremely interesting. I thought the rest of the movie would play out with him progressing toward him learning to cope with his issues involving intimacy and getting revenge on his mom for the amount of abuse she put him through. Nope. Beau doesn't exactly grow at all - at any point. The closest thing to growth that we see is at the very end where he goes to strangle his mom, does it for a few seconds, stops, apologizes, and refers to her as mommy. She then collapses. Beau apologizing afterward negates him finally standing up for himself!! Making it so he quite literally at no point stands up for himself! It was disappointing but I also admire the nonconventional route of not having the main character have any development.
Joaquin did an absolutely astounding job, yet again demonstrating his wide range and massive talent.
Regardless of the bad aspects of the film, the good makes up for it ten times over. If the film was edited down and has some reshoots I entirely believe it would be a solid 10/10. But deep down I love it. I love this film with everything in me. From the absurdly strange plot, the acting, the casting choices, the mix of dark humor and horror, the beautiful immersive world-building, how it induces so much anxiety in the viewer, disgusting unique never seen before choices, to Roger's character as a whole – I LOVE IT. I often connect the most with movies that thematically or plot-wise have something in common with me or deal with things I believe it; This movie couldn't be farther than anything I've ever dealt with, yet I am incredibly drawn to it. It's uncomfortably entertaining and should be seen as a classic.