Beau is Afraid
Movies and TV shows about illness or set in hospitals or similar medical institutions
Creating a fantasy-based universe in a script can give writer/directors a lot of leeway. Often, they spend the first 15 or 20 minutes providing a boring, grounded reality familiar to the audience as a basis for comparison. Think of Jumanji, which both begins and ends with our basic modern-day existence. In the middle portion of the movie, we see lions, stampedes, and David Alan Grier in a cop uniform. However, some filmmakers go wire to wire with the fantasy, never letting the audience catch their breath. Ari Aster chooses this path in his newest psychological horror-drama Beau is Afraid.
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) plays the title character, a middle-aged therapy patient suffering from anxiety who tries to make it home to visit his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone, Summer of Sam). In a true case of Murphy’s Law, several unforeseen circumstances prevent Beau from catching his flight home, some of which are quite surreal. For instance, as Beau tries to drift off to sleep the night before, a neighbor slides notes under his door asking him to stop playing his music so loud. This confuses Beau, as he is not playing any music at all. After a few notes and some banging on the door, the neighbor proceeds to blast his own stereo as payback, taking Beau off of his sleep schedule. Upon the realization that he will miss his flight, he calls to inform his disappointed mother of the situation. He later calls her back and a delivery man picks up, telling Beau that he has discovered Mona’s lifeless, mutilated body while making his delivery. Beau determines that he must find a way home immediately to either find his mother or mourn her passing, leading him through several perilous situations.
Ari Aster’s three-hour odyssey feels like an extended fever dream at times, as it occurs from the hallucinatory perspective of Beau. As with other psychological horror films (for instance, Aster’s very own Midsommar), the audience does not know what is happening in the “real world” and what is in Beau’s head. Aster plants several seeds from scene to scene that create a sense of dread in the audience. For instance, Beau’s crime-ridden neighborhood consists of violent vagrants that he could run into at any point in time. His own apartment has a large spider loose somewhere, shown to the audience when Beau first arrives at his unit. Ultimately, what’s real to him is real to us, and the ominous surroundings and situations make the audience relate to Beau’s unease.
Loneliness heavily contributes to Beau’s anxiety, as he has no trusted friends to guide him back home. In many odysseys, the central character has a confidant or protector, such as Samwise Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Beau has no such support system. Everyone he comes into contact with is either hostile towards him or just untrustworthy. This even includes Roger (Nathan Lane, The Birdcage) and Grace (Amy Ryan, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)), the couple that nurses him back to health after he gets stabbed and hit by a car. Beau not only lacks a friend but also a romantic partner, as he still yearns for his first love from childhood Elaine (Parker Posey, Dazed and Confused). The befuddling surroundings he finds himself in (the forest, a stranger’s home, an unsafe neighborhood) could only be made more comforting with a friendly, trustworthy face, which he does not come across until the final act of the movie.
As several perverted, scary and violent moments occur throughout Beau is Afraid’s 179-minute runtime, the audience is not grounded in any type of reality. Thus, Aster’s fantasy-riddled style emulates that of contemporaries like Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), who often hold the audience’s head under water from beginning to end and never let them up for air. For some, this style creates a much more enthralling film with no limitations on what the audience will see. Others may view it as a cop-out, allowing the director to depict the most absurd and vulgar goings-on with no consequences, defying any sort of cause-and-effect chain. The side of the fence you fall on will determine how you feel when the end credits roll.
In spite of the aforementioned Aronofsky and Kaufman comparisons, the film Beau is Afraid reminded me of the most was an early 2000s film directed by Stephen Spielberg: A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Though the main character was a robot as opposed to an anxiety-ridden 40-something, both characters embark on dangerous quests to gain the adulation of their mothers, with menacing antagonists standing in their way.