A Horror of Errors: Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid

So Fangoria sent me an email as part of my subscription. In it, it implored me to go see Ari Aster’s 2023 film Beau Is Afraid. It was the first film I’ve seen by myself in a long time, approximately three years. I took an Uber at practically the last minute to see it before opening day.

And let me start off by saying that Beau has a lot, and everything, to be afraid of.

When I was talking about Aster’s 2019 Midsommar, I was reminded of the fact that it came out the same year as Joker, and far before I decided to see Beau Is Afraid, I knew that Joaquin Phoenix – who played Arthur Fleck and eventually that iteration of the Joker, on his journey parallel to Florence Pugh’s Dani Ardor – would be the aforementioned Beau.

My initial thoughts, after describing Beau’s existence are the following. Imagine a nightmare maternal Jewish guilt-trip psychodrama set to the tone of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and Brother Where Art Thou? and you might get something like Ari Aster’s latest film. Let that set in for a few moments. It’s so tempting for me to envision Beau Wassermann as something like what would happen if Fleck from Joker had never fully thrown off the narcissism of his mother, or killed her, aged and broke down under her manipulative care, and was left completely adrift. He even had one love interest, who does exist, that he held one innocent wish to be reunited with one day.

There is something incredibly surreal and almost magically real about this movie and its narrative, and like Joker or Taxi Driver you have to wonder if Beau’s mental illness is causing various truths and hallucinations of the Freudian, and Jungian kinds to intermix. I can definitely see there being many different interpretations of this movie going forward, complete with critics toting the “elevated horror” line, but also examining the strengths and limitations of A24’s arthouse film sensibility or ethos. Is this film something that pushes the envelope of genre, or storytelling? Or is it more artistic indulgence, and vanity?

We get glimpses of some concrete truths in Beau’s life, even if they are distorted, and necessarily limited by his own perspective. It feels like everything bad that can happen to him does, from the small and inconvenient to the utterly tragic: and all of these little things turn into a tide that threatens to drown the man, especially as he can’t find any water. It’s basically a Comedy of Errors, with little bits of Manners – tongue and cheek words of graffiti on the wall, and throwaway statements – that shape this poor man’s utter existence. For instance, Beau is prescribed medication by his psychiatrist that he has to drink with water, but after somehow losing his house keys and luggage while having slept in due to loud music and neighbour harassment in his apartment, he doesn’t get to the airport to get to his mother’s, and the apartment happens to have shut off all of the plumbing. This leads to him having to go outside into a dystopian neighbourhood filled with corpses, and fights, and orgies – and because he leaves the door open without his keys, the barbarians from outside invade his space and utterly destroy it.

And then, afterwards, he finds out his mother died.

Seriously, Ari Aster seems to be attempting a monopoly over grief and familial breakdowns in the horror genre: from Hereditary, to Midsommar, and even The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. I mean, I can firmly believe that his narcissistic businesswoman mother Mona Wassermann is a witch, a failed Ellen Taper Leigh, for various reasons I won’t go into, and some of her “love” for her son borders on the incestuous if only because her sense of self always trumps his every time: in life, and in death.

Beau’s tragedy isn’t just the death of his mother, and the low, awkward, uncomfortable paces of finding out this truth, and dealing with the cold, unfeeling, shallow, self-centered actions of everyone else around him. It’s that in her attempt to mould him into what she thought of as the perfect man, and make him love her the way she wanted him to express that affection – and only in that way – he has severe mental trauma that the world around him seems to exploit. It renders him nearly inarticulate, and passive: to the point of small things like not having enough change, or being able to renew his credit card utterly fuck him. Some people with mental illness or challenges have called this a difficulty executive dysfunction. Literally, you see Beau wrestling with one frustrating, infuriating thing, only to have to put the other aside and you really feel for him: if only because we have all been there in some way, or form.

It just doesn’t let up. It just doesn’t give him a break. Instead, the film proceeds to break Beau down with various twists and turns, and folds in reality, time, and belief that never give him relief. And some of these you can see coming a mile away. On risk of making a terrible extended pun, even sharing an orgasm with another person, someone he once loved, ends poetically and horrifically, and it only cascades from there after one false moment of peace. Even his mental retreat from the meta-fictional play in a play, whose mileage may vary for viewers, and the strange animation that would not have been out of place in Midsommar, only leads him into a deeper, dark forest of his mind, the feminine, maternal, voice-over telling his story and threatening to overcome and manipulate his first-person perspective, until eventually after not being able to find water at the start of the film, he finds all the water he could want …and very much cannot escape.

There is so much to say about this film, and how almost every agent in it wants to take away Beau’s sense of identity, and I feel like as I describe it I make a lot of other cinematic and even literary comparisons to other works in order to properly elucidate my feelings on how I’ve experienced it. Sometimes, as I followed the film for two hours and fifty-nine minutes, I felt like I was in a Jewish cautionary folktale hijacked by Art Spiegelman’s Prisoner on the Hell Planet comic. I don’t think this is a coincidence, at least in my mind. In the comic, Spiegelman attempts to communicate how his Jewish mother’s death, and her own mental illness before it – her suicide in that case – traps him. He struggled with her own behaviour while she lived, along with the rest of his family, and in her death and how people reacted callously to his grief – and supposed abandonment of her in life – she still imprisons him. Or perhaps it wasn’t Spiegelman’s mother who put him in that place, but the trauma that shaped their lives.

Beau’s mother came from a long line of cold, unfeeling women and she attempted to escape it by pouring toxic love all over Beau. She smothered him, and he rebelled in little ways that he castigated himself over. He doesn’t live with her, but her shadow looms over him. It threatens to consume him with her impossible expectations, and her projected disappointments. She’s become larger than life at the end of the film. Whether or not she’s dead is irrelevant. Whether or not the world is inherently flawed and unfair to Beau is also irrelevant. When Beau is sitting in that broken boat as judgment is proclaimed on him by the prosecution, and the defense is barely even heard: it is that childhood trauma winning over the adult sense of knowing none of this was his fault. It’s heartbreaking to watch especially as it eventually swallows the man, and the boy he was, whole.

And as the credits roll over that upended boat, as the criminal that is Beau is unfairly punished, as the shadows consume the anonymous and distant jury of his self-condemnation into darkness, you realize that Beau’s mother is only part of the terror in this ridiculous film. It’s the entire world. It’s Beau’s world that is the ultimate horror, where his answer to Kafka is that he is not helmsman, he is less than Gregor Samsa’s vermin – and you can recall the spiders in his apartment at the start of the film – and he does find his brother, and himself, and he doesn’t like what has seen. Nothing makes sense, but everything does, and it isn’t the answer he wants, but one to which he has resigned himself. 

If I were to give this maddening film a rating, I would give it three and half imagined family members out of five. I say check it out if you are lost, and want to find someone or something even more so.