Beau is Afraid

Directed by: Ari Aster
Distributed by: A24

Written by Taylor Baker


Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) has some issues. He lives in an apartment building downtown with questionable neighbors, and crime-riddled streets just outside his building’s door where a naked older man regularly stabs civilians. While the film is blatantly absurd it is presented with such proficiency that staying invested in Beau’s odyssey is never an issue. After visiting his therapist Beau intends to hop on a plane and go see his mother on the anniversary of the day his father died. There’s only one problem when Beau runs back inside his apartment to grab some floss someone steals the keys out of his door.

It’s not clear even after the film has ended which (if any) parts you can trust as being real. It appears that in the middle of the film when Beau skips forward and backward on channel 78 we see a brief more true-to-reality depiction of a handful of events that take place leading up to the end of the film. Aster plays around with dozens of influences in “Beau is Afraid” making them completely beholden to the journey he sends Beau on. Works like Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” and the Greek tragedy of Oedipus Rex equally seem to share an influence on it.

“Beau is Afraid” keeps an excellent sense of time while orchestrating precise thematic flashback sequences to evoke a deeper comprehension of the contemporary timeline and the characterization of both Beau and those that have an influence on his life. From a promise he made as a young boy to a girl named Elaine that he would wait for her, to his mother telling him that if he ejaculated he would die just like his father, these character traits no matter how far-fetched and farcical delve into the recesses of the subconscious of myth and the character. Whom by the end of the film one might say are one and the same.

Amy Ryan’s Grace and Nathan Lane’s Roger happen to hit Beau with their food truck on their way to feed the homeless while Beau is running naked from a cop after being assaulted by a large man who fell on him while he was taking a bath. There are at least half a dozen instances like this where “Beau is Afraid” leans into absurdism, with a realist filmic style that never lets us get too far away from the fact that for Beau at least all of this seems quite real. Two visual techniques that Aster uses to great effect in the film are vertical space to create suspense and metaphor; and distrust so we scour the frame whether looking for a face in the background of a figure that we can’t quite make out or for the brown recluse spider roaming the apartment building. There’s an interplay he’s created with the audience that maintains engagement with his lengthy scenes and layered sets aside from a few instances where the visual presentation is stripped bare to exposit a false idyllic narrative. 

“Beau is Afraid” is a delicately crafted journey through both a physical and psychological labyrinth, whether audiences choose to make the journey with Beau or not remains to be seen. But I wouldn’t be surprised if “Beau is Afraid” goes on to be one of the decade’s most respected titles.

“Beau is Afraid” Trailer

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on film on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

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