An Odyssey Through Inescapable Guilt and Anxiety

Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid (Light Spoilers)


by Ben Steinhauer, Staff Writer

From the trailer of A24’s latest release, I had less than a surface level understanding of Beau is Afraid. It was a bit of an understatement considering that the actual content kept unraveling further down the gradient of sanity. To be perfectly honest it was exhausting to sit through not just because of the three hour run time but simply due to the pulse of the film that I felt was so delicate that it made my skin crawl. Suggesting a sort of rubatosis, or the irksome awareness of just how extinguishable an organism is by their heartbeat alone. Rubatosis could very well be a fear. That you will, to some extent, crush the life force of the organism that you hold within your grasp.

The whole of Beau is Afraid has this pulse that grows fainter and fainter but somehow louder as things digress. In Beau is Afraid it is one of the innumerable fears that breach the screen but instead of sensationalizing these fears and writing them off as Beau harboring delusions the audience quickly becomes accustomed to Beau as the hero. Beau is a punching bag both inside and around him as he manages to maintain an equal action potential of hatred on either side of his perception of his adverse reality so watching Beau overcome these hardships is the ultimate catharsis. It is then where most of the suspense and horror of the film come in and upend the only anchor of truth that can be found in the Beau. When the events are not unknown or arcane enough to have a profound effect of deep seeded horror but rather they become purely comedic. Beau lives in a bedlam and a self perpetuating dancing plague that collides around him like a swarm. Beau’s environment, although ever fluctuating, is probably emblematic of his perception of time.

Everything is stochastic and everything is tantamount to a nervous breakdown because his upbringing and trauma in his childhood stultified him and thus he is just genuinely unable to adapt to chaos. Beau is a reminder that everyone eventually must settle in and live in their own reality that is predicated on their perception. From his childhood trauma it is very easy to see that this astonishingly dynamic depersonalization was the product of an overbearing mother who he feels is always ready to insinuate her disappointment to him. And from the very start he relapses into a delusion because of it. One that puts him into immediate harm. But with stories with subtext there is always something pernicious that clings under his id, gritting its teeth. The guilt of being unable to honor the death anniversary of his father which he always felt his mother was gaslighting him about, spirals into her own death. Before that any attempts to thwart his creeping delusions with a pill that must be taken with water at all costs fails when there is no water to speak of. He draws himself a bath as if to fully embrace the delusion of getting his key stolen out of his door in his apartment the previous day and now has the knowledge of his mother’s death hanging over him. When he grasps the grisly death of his mother over the phone he lets the bath he was drawing for himself overflow.

The rushing water and rain in the end of the Tarkovsky film Solaris represents redemption which I feel bears some similitude with this scene considering that his shot of redemption with his mother is now figuratively, completely gone. From getting displaced from his apartment the other day as the denizens, local color, and transients migrated to his apartment, a straggler constantly murmuring for help and a brown recluse from the other day manage to single handedly send Beau into a stampede out of his apartment where he is injured, maimed, and transported to a surgeon’s abode. It is here where the dwindling hope of saving face for his mother’s funeral gets more and more distant to the point where he also has to save face towards not becoming a homewrecker in the process.

In this Calypso’s Island of refuge where he is adored in an echo chamber like fashion everything soon becomes inverted and he is denounced once his captors become horrified by their own grotesque reflection. That they were feeding into their own delusions they cannot accept and their ward who they detest as a homewrecker is catapulted out with his life. The only functional family that Beau could ever hope to be a part of gets swept out from under him. It happens so quickly and seamlessly that Beau is seen from being a parasite that is subjected to hysteria to a deliberate and monotonal non-diegetic dirge-like dreamscape environment that is reserved for the thought and the synonymous power that his mother has over him. The best way to describe the lucid dreamscapes are like an artificial papery gossamer that strings across the story like a chain of flowers to which the only thing holding plot points together is by submerging this paper in subcritical swathes that perturb the water with their vibrations. Although it creates pulp that detaches from it like orbitals that deviate from it, in the end the audience member, also inside the pool, becomes a nucleus for the events of the plot to gravitate towards. This creates cohesiveness as well as immersion in an almost sensory deprivation experience. 

The reason why something seemingly so unrelated in the events of the film, like a flashback, segues so well is due to this immersion that I believe Ari Aster has proven for a hat trick that he is very capable of inspiring. With the over the shoulder skulking evil of Hereditary, the Stockholm Syndrome ending of Midsommar, and finally the more unique and unprecedented immersion found in Beau is Afraid. Ari Aster narratively treads very similar waters to what he is accustomed to although surprisingly enough cinema’s favorite grief counselor adopts an approach that is unlike anything he’s ever done. It is my belief that it is his most important film to date as with the rise and revamping of positive male archetypes taking the industry by storm, Joaquin Phoenix in Beau is Afraid is a worthy addition. The pillars of the principles of stoicism and a more fleshed out analysis of the oedipal complex is from what I’ve seen scarcely done in a tasteful way, especially in monomyths like Beau is Afraid. Manipulation and abuse tactics inherent within trauma are always subject to undercoverage especially because they are felt within everyone in a multitude of ways. Subtle character studies are usually praised as a result but are never held accountable or scrutinized in a fashion that holds no solipsistic heroes who are granted infallibility in their tortured state of disrepair. Beau fully endorses his accountability and tries to remedy everything he can but always underlying is the fact that he can never do anything right in the eyes of his mother who has the power to destroy his world.

Beau is Afraid is an ode to people such as this and recognizes their ability to self actualize and to not themselves be afraid to harness their own prospects to the fullest of its extent. Overall the film was baffling and exhausting but it was a grower. It is a very contentious film and for this reason warrants rewatches. The film is at points predictable but I applaud the art direction most although I’m sure it is also quite a daunting undertaking to direct and pace a three hour film like the end product of Beau is Afraid. The directorial style of Ari Aster is very palpable as well. It is tastefully transgressive to the sensibilities of film viewers today and is really quite fresh stacked up against everything else getting a wide release in 2023.

Beau is Afraid is 4 out of 5 birthday boy stab wounds