The critics agree: Beau Is Afraid is a Freudian farce, a nightmarish horror-comedy, a tragicomic Oedipal odyssey. But what does all this mean—that it’s about mommy issues? That it’s funny and scary? That the protagonist takes a long journey; that the film itself is long? Ari Aster’s latest begins in a birth canal and ends with a passage through a murky birthlike tunnel. We cut from newborn Beau’s perspective of the birthing room to his spot on a therapist’s couch. This is a movie in which everything is expelled and nothing is left out.
Beau Is Afraid has so much going on that it solicits verbose description, but it is not, as one reviewer has opined, “a heightened reality that’s not meant to be read literally.” It is not a film that maps onto some subterranean topography of meaning. Instead, it presents a flattened reality; it is a film excavated of subtext. Though Beau Is Afraid is shot through with paranoia and oozes with Oedipal symptoms, it conveys no interiority, no underground, no unconscious. Its symbols are literalized, and everything is as it seems. The only surprising thing is that there is nothing surprising. The film is telling you this the whole way through.
Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man with complex feelings about his mother, a wealthy woman named Mona. His life is overdetermined by their relationship; it might be his only one. He has no friends, no life, just severe anxiety. He does, however, have therapy sessions, during which he talks about her.
Beau has a trip planned to visit his mother, but he is delayed by the tides of a world bent on tormenting him. All he knows about his father is what Mona has told him: that he died at the moment of Beau’s conception from a congenital heart defect that can make ejaculation fatal—one that Beau himself has inherited. As a result, Beau carries his father’s death within him, and for most of the movie, sexuality and romantic interest exist for him only in flashback.
The film proceeds episodically, beginning in a dilapidated apartment situated at the intersection of multicultural poverty and urban decay. Beau is delayed when, after he sleeps through his alarm, his keys are stolen out of his door. But his journey really begins when he calls home and learns that his mother’s body has been found, a shattered chandelier where her head should be. A stricken Beau climbs into the bathtub and grieves, but he isn’t given much time to wallow. Soon he is fleeing assailants, running naked through the street, fleshy and pink. Next comes a truck, a crash, and everything goes dark.
As Beau wakes up, the film once again takes his perspective: a black frame lightening, the room coming into focus. It is as though he is being born again. Beau finds himself in a pink room plastered with boy-band posters. He meets Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane), who have lost their own son to war and who nurse him back to health in their suburban home. The two are implacably upbeat, and Beau soon finds himself somehow railroaded into the role of their adopted son, surrounded by a domestic horror show of too-green lawns and suburban niceties. Families like Grace and Roger’s appear happy even if they’ve been broken apart by state-waged violence. That killing machine has also come home to roost. Beau is introduced to Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), a traumatized war veteran who then slips into jungle gear and chases Beau throughout the rest of the film.
Each section of Beau Is Afraid opens in a similar fashion, with his movement from darkness to consciousness. Even after the literal birth scene of the beginning, we continue to follow Beau as he enters into successive new disorienting contexts that shift the movie’s tone.
After his brief hiatus in the leafy but murderous suburbs, Beau awakens, lost, in a verdant forest, and comes across a woman who leads him to a clearing where a stage is erected. There, he meets a traveling theater troupe about to put on a play. Beau is a spectator, but he soon finds himself literally absorbed into the play, a sequence told with colorful hand-drawn scenes and stop-motion animation. The play’s main character, who is now also Beau, builds a life in a village, where he marries and has three healthy boys. But a historic flood separates him from his family and carries him to foreign lands, where he must resume his wandering life. He spends the next decade looking for his family, alienated from the world around him.
When the man-who-is-also-Beau finally stumbles upon his old village again, there is a play going on in the forest. The performance has already started, but the man recognizes the details from his own life and sees his three sons onstage. A cathartic reunion follows, full of tears and sweet embraces. This moment, though fanciful, is the most sentimental in the film, but then a wrench is thrown into the heartrending story: As one of the man’s sons asks, how could they all have been conceived if Beau can’t have sex without dying?
The family idyll is just a fantasy after all. Realizing this, Beau steps back out of the role and returns to the audience. The play-within-a-play-within-a-movie throws into sharp relief what is truly fantastical in the film: not the comic violence and death rained down upon our beleaguered protagonist, but the dream of an art that can, if only momentarily, reunite him with the things that he has lost.
Beau Is Afraid hews closely to its namesake, playing out from his perspective and lingering on his visage throughout the film. Rather than the wiry freneticism that he brought to The Master or Joker, Phoenix invests Beau with a tender passivity and wide-eyed inertia that takes over his whole posture. He can barely speak, except for the apologies that stumble out of him. We watch Beau vacillate over whether to pack dental floss for his trip home and what to do when his keys are stolen. He gets pushed around by the gregarious Roger and his spiteful teenage daughter. Though Phoenix tries to imbue Beau with personhood, his blankness is kind of the point. His anxiety is debilitating, driving him ever inward to a place we cannot follow.
Instead of interiority, Beau has flashbacks in which he appears just as flat and affectless as his middle-aged self. In a dream, he watches from the bathtub as his double asks Mona, “Where is my dad?” In another, we see Beau as a younger man, stuck on a cruise ship with his mother. He meets a girl, Elaine, who is forward and confident; they share a kiss, but then she is torn away from Beau before he has a chance to tempt fate and take things further. These flashbacks color in some details about his relationship with Mona, but they do not complicate anything; they are a straight line to Beau’s current self.
When mothers and dreams are involved, it is hard not to think of Freud. But Beau Is Afraid makes a setting out of the symptoms and does little to interrogate the underlying causes. The film leaves us with a world that, for all its absurdity, must be taken at face value, since nothing shows up to lend it depth: no twists in the characters, no mythology, no secondary system of reference. Beau’s blankness makes him both fitting and frustrating as a guide into this world. Like a filmmaker’s camera, he is the locus of perspective. He absorbs the life around him without living it.
In the final act of Beau Is Afraid, Beau returns to the family house in Wasserton, a towering glass terrarium where he grew up and where Mona lived and died. Ever the steady camera, Beau tours his former home, which is decorated with clues to the conspiracy that has enveloped his life this entire time. If you look closely, the movie seems to say, everything that was complicated and unclear is actually pretty simple.
The revelations we do get are simplistic; rather than enrich the film, they stamp out any interpretive wiggle room. There is no wider world, it turns out, just a mother-son dyad. Beau is a story vehicle, and Aster puts every detail of the film to work as evidence in exploring his plotted fate.
The film’s overdetermined outcome is lightened by its gross-out body humor: There are genitals, expelled fluids, pharmaceutical side effects, and Beau’s cartoonish resilience. The laughs were sparse at the screenings I attended, but that may be because the audience was not quite ready to be amused by a nudist serial killer dubbed the “Birthday Boy Stab Man,” whose member flops with every stabbing motion.
There is something else at work, too. In The Odd One In, her book on comedy and psychoanalysis, Alenka Zupančič observes that one way to distinguish between comedy and tragedy is that, in tragedy, there is nothing behind the veil, nothing in the closet or attic; the tragic hero opens the hidden door only to find himself. In comedy, the opposite happens: The mystery is revealed, but what is revealed is hilariously trivial. Imagine if, in Othello, a tragic story about jealousy, a sheepish lover had popped out of the closet: “Yet the comic point,” Zupančič writes, “is that what is behind is—Surprise, surprise!—nothing but what we would expect (from the surface of things).”
Beau Is Afraid contains just such an unsurprising surprise. At the end of the film, we meet Mona (Patti LuPone) for the first time outside Beau’s dreams and she monologues on the mysteries that have long perplexed us. Beau’s mother, it turns out, is both more and less than a simple villain—after so much buildup. Beau finally meets his father as well, who has been hidden away for decades, and the exposure is both horrific and hilarious. Popping out from behind the hidden door—or, in this case, the attic—his father is a literal penis. But because the film can’t deal with the truth’s deflating triviality, he is a penis monster, 16 feet tall, with praying-mantis claws. Despite its absurdity, you don’t need too much time on the couch to get that one.