Beau is Afraid, the latest film by director Ari Aster, presents a fragmented but uniquely wholesome narrative that provides a discursive analysis of a range of subjective emotions and themes. These include the lingering effects of childhood abandonment, the oppressive burden of excessive care and affection, and the constraining influence of love on individual growth and personal development. Through the internally convoluted mind of its protagonist Beau, physically ascribed by the same set of skills that made actor Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker one of the most popular and scariest performances of recent times, Beau is Afraid comfortably lets us slip into the quicksand that mirrors Beau's perception of reality. And mind you! There is no way back.
As a classic hero's journey narrative, the movie follows Beau’s never ending misadventures as he plans to board an early flight in order to visit his mother on the solemn occasion of his father's death anniversary. Positive expectations are a luxury for Beau as well as for the viewers of this movie, because what may go wrong does go wrong and often in ways that no one can imagine. As unexpectedly, his plans are derailed when he misplaces the keys to his apartment. And now Beau is stranded in his room, disheartened, as he might not make it to the flight and is also picturing the fearful consequences of having disappointed his mother.
And Beau is also equally anxious about the possible repercussions of leaving his apartment unlocked. Because his homies are not of sound mind and might (we are not sure if Beau is either). His neighbourhood is populated with violent and mad men, running naked and carrying rusty knifes, ready to stab anyone and everyone that comes in their way. There’s public intoxication and tattooed bodied hooligans who are just waiting for this one moment to break into Beau’s life. There are dead bodies on the streets and illicit graffiti on the walls. And the pressure of his thoughts is crushing him hard and the fear is palpable. So what does Beau do?
There are questions that require thoughtful introspection, starting with its cryptic title - Beau is Afraid. But what is Beau afraid of and why is he afraid? The narrative brings to life the psychological depths of Beau's fears and wonders, seeking to play around with the subjects, objects and motivations behind his fear. However, there are resistance of absurd kinds which inhibits the cause for an explanation, as Beau's trepidation extends to virtually every aspect of his existence. He is haunted by the fear of his own shadow, and living up to the expectations of his mother. He is apprehensive of the society and even those who remotely display a tincture of care and affection towards him. Beau perceives the world as a nihilistic tapestry woven with strands of selfishness and immortality. And he finds himself helplessly trapped within it.
In the majority of the features and short films that Ari Aster has directed, generational trauma is a given. In a similar vein, Beau is Afraid also deals with the passing down of psychological horrors from one generation to the next. It tells the story of a man child who did best while living in his mother's shadow but whose life has stalled since he moved out on his own. An identifiable Oedipus complex is evident in their relationship, as Beau constantly seeks his mother's validation for all his wishes and wants and his mother quietly disengages him from any involvement with girls. This dynamic is further intertwined with a narrative thread highlighting a family history wherein the male members of Beau’s paternal lineage meet untimely demise upon reaching sexual climax. And based on his mother’s lessons, Beau is convinced from his very childhood that the world is a terrible and unsettling place.
As writer-director Aster tries to give a sound meaning to the chaotic proceedings of the story, he offers us a glaring peek into the deep trenches of what it is to be like to live with anxiety. As Beau ends up in the home of a family who seem suspiciously friendly, director Aster makes us feel the force of the environment pressing in. The family's teenage daughter, who has a rocky relationship with Beau from the beginning, commits suicide by drinking a can of paint. Why a can of paint? Because anything that can go wrong does go wrong, and sometimes it is even earlier than we had anticipated. And Beau is blamed for the death although he is at no fault.
Beau is Afraid is not an easy watch and with every passing minute it gets harder to put up with the craziness or follow the plot. However, it’s the slow burning anxiety of wanting to find out the resolution of Beau’s doomed fate that will keep viewers on hold till Beau breaths his last. While its three hour runtime is partly responsible for the restlessness, it is also mostly because of its terrifying beauty. There is beauty in insanity and pleasure in fear which Aster oozes out through his frames. He delivers a visceral impact, a blow that strangely provides a gratifying sensation to the very core of one's being.
But Beau must visit his mother at any cost because he can't afford to merely enrage her. There's emotional blackmailing and a free guilt tripping and a whole range of issues that will come down upon him if she is to be disappointed or humiliated. And Beau is very afraid. Thus, Beau makes every effort to go back to her. In the film, Aster not only offers us a psychotic guilt trip to Beau’s living hell but also introduces us to the terrorizing forms of mental agony as all kinds of his intrusive thoughts run wild.
Beau is Afraid is comparable to a nightmare from which one cannot be awakened. Therefore, very little of it will make sense. Neither should it, because it is not meant to be meaningful. Because many questions in life have no definitive answers, and Beau's life is no exception. Ari Aster always comes up with an insane way to talk about his carefully chosen closed-door subjects, and Beau is Afraid is no exception. Although it is of the fearful, it is certainly not for the fearful. This guild ridden, surreal take on a troubled mother-son relationship might bring up some of your worst fears or even reveal some new ones you weren't aware you had.