Beau Is Afraid Gets Lost on Its Odyssey

Photo: courtesy of A24.

Ari Aster has not shied away from the uncomfortable. His previous feature films, Hereditary and Midsommar, ushered in an age of mainstream(ish) elevated horror. His films are divisive, perhaps none more than his latest, Beau Is Afraid. The film centers on the titular Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) and his ever-mounting paranoia. He has plans to return to his childhood home and visit his mother (Patti Lupone), but those plans go awry when his keys are stolen. Determined to find a way home so he won’t disappoint his mother (yet again), Beau meets a too-willing-to-help couple (Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane), his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), moody teens (Kylie Rogers and Alicia Rosario), and plenty of other eccentric characters.

For the first thirty minutes, Beau Is Afraid is enjoyable. Well… enjoyable is probably never the right word for an Aster movie, but the film’s beginning is compelling. Beau lives in an unnamed large city that feels like it could be New York if it was at the beginning of a dystopian story. There are daily riots, brutal fights, and all-around chaos on the streets. Beau’s only sanctuary is his apartment, and even that doesn’t provide much safety. The apartment has no water and no decorations, and Beau lives on frozen food. At his therapist’s suggestion, he tries a new medication, but that only makes his fear of the outside world grow stronger.

Beau stands with cuts on his face
Photo: courtesy of A24.

Anyone who has had crippling panic and anxiety attacks will find the first third of the movie, where the audience is forcibly pushed into Beau’s paranoid world, uncomfortably recognizable. Sure, this nightmarish world Aster has created is more outlandish than our real world, but when you’re in the depths of those swirling anxious feelings, life can feel a bit like the one Beau exists in. Every decision is agony, every venture to the outside world is like entering a warzone, and it is impossible to find even a moment of peace because the most distressing attacks are coming from within. Beau’s new medicine requires him to take the pills with water, and the one time he forgets, he Googles what happens if he doesn’t have water. The results show that people who have forgotten their water have died, and Beau’s panic spirals. It’s extreme, but the mounting tension and dread are magnificently captured in the film’s first act. That goodwill does not last.

Of Aster’s three films, Midsommar remains his strongest narrative, but it doesn’t take long for Beau Is Afraid to descend into last-place territory in terms of a compelling storyline. The film hits the same beats over and over again for three full hours, with no sense of urgency or desire to self-edit. Aster seems to over-indulge his every whim. Sometimes these tangents can be interesting, like the animated segment that falls near the middle of the film. While its narrative purpose is up for debate, the self-contained story is compelling in its own right. The animation by Cristobal León & Joaquín Cociña is gorgeous, but so much so that the audience is left wondering why the entire film doesn’t look like this, and why it isn’t this concise and coherent.

Beau stands on stage with an axe below an angel
Photo: courtesy of A24.

What fills the space around the animated section is a tedious, paranoid odyssey with a sprinkling of Oedipal complex so lost in the director’s own head that the movie is fundamentally exhausting. It would be one thing to watch Aster work through his (clearly) deeply personal feelings about therapy, mental illness, maternal relationships, and prescription drugs, but Beau Is Afraid doesn’t actually say anything new or interesting about these themes. Instead, Aster almost gleefully delights in inflicting new, unusual, and brutal forms of torture onto Beau to drive home the same obvious points that remain unchanged from the beginning of the movie. Yet, it seems like Beau Is Afraid desperately wants to make the audience follow some breadcrumbs and believe that they’re solving some grand mystery of life, only to realize that Aster has no answers himself. Which is fine. No filmmaker needs to have the answers to the universe to create a compelling work of art, but the problem lies with Aster acting as though he has those answers.

One could spend thousands of words on various aspects of the movie, simply because of how far-reaching Beau Is Afraid is. That’s not necessarily a compliment, simply an observation about the immense amount of ground Aster is trying to cover. One of these aspects is the recurring focus on SSRI-esque medications and how these are doled out instead of actually focusing on the person’s mental health. At one point, Beau meets Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), a military vet with PTSD. His character exists to hunt down Beau, and his only emotion seems to be uncontrollable anger. Aster could have used this character to look at America’s military obsession and how hard it is for veterans to get meaningful, important care when they return, but instead, Jeeves is played as a steroided-out joke. 

Beau lays in the bed of a teenage girl, the walls covered in Kpop posters
Photo: courtesy of A24.

In a sense, there’s something fascinating about seeing a film of this kind on the big screen. Beau Is Afraid is playing in theatres alongside The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Evil Dead Rise, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, John Wick: Chapter 4, and Renfield. All of these movies are either sequels or based on existing intellectual property. Beau Is Afraid is a $35 million swing and (potential) miss. If nothing else, it’s far too divisive to be a confident bet by A24 and yet…there it is, on the big screen with a huge marketing push from the production company that’s fresh off a massive awards season.

Within Beau Is Afraid is a genuinely upsetting film about guilt, paranoia, and anxiety, but it’s so buried within its massive runtime that the weight of those themes is lost along the way. Beau may be afraid, but he’s also meandering and in desperate need of editing. Personal stories are important, and it’s obvious that Beau Is Afraid comes from a place within Aster that he needs to share, but it’s often personal stories that need the most editing. Sometimes, the storyteller can’t see the forest for the trees. Beau Is Afraid is lost in the forest and seemingly content with that.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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