Beau Is Afraid is a hilarious epic that revels in the absurdity of fear

Ari Aster’s latest leaves the straightforward horror genre behind for something far, far weirder.

If there’s anything Ari Aster wants you to understand after watching his newest film, it’s that he’s funny. With just three feature films under his belt, Beau Is Afraid marks both a massive departure from his previous films and a solidifying of his style. It’s a movie about terror, without a ton of interest in being terrifying. More specifically, it’s a movie about the absurdity of fear and the ridiculousness of human nature. And yeah, it’s definitely about moms, too.

Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is a meek and sniveling mama’s boy whose trip home to visit his mother gets unexpectedly delayed. Of course, this means disaster strikes and the very next day he learns his mother has died, her head crushed by a chandelier (this alone should set you up for the kind of film you’re about to see). Beau’s trip home now takes on a whole new immediacy and everything about the world Aster has built seems determined to waylay him.

The world Beau inhabits is one chock full of threats, all coming at him from every angle. The streets outside his home are a horrifying mass of criminals and monsters, including a naked serial killer named Birthday Boy Stab Man. Inside his graffiti-riddled apartment, things aren’t much better with a poisonous spider on the loose and irate neighbors slipping menacing notes under the door. It feels like the kind of hysterically bleak world the Joker would inhabit if Todd Phillips hadn’t completely lost his sense of humor.

Beau Is Afraid (A24)
Beau Is Afraid (A24)

In fact, that’s perhaps the best way to approach what Beau Is Afraid is really doing. It’s a freewheeling, epic-length journey through one man’s fears, fears that could be elevated and imbued with immense power to terrify us just as much as they terrify Beau. But that isn’t what Aster does. Instead, he allows those fears to retain their power over Beau, while having none over us by making them downright farcical. The film’s intent is crystal clear in this way, and its cast clearly understands the assignment.

Phoenix’s incredible physicality is on display whether he’s flopping all over a bathtub before shrieking naked into the street or running madly through the woods in a hail of gunfire. He knows exactly when to shrink himself and when to let his hound dog eyes do all the work, and it’s what makes Beau feel real, even if the world he lives in feels like a cartoon.

Meanwhile, Patti LuPone as Beau’s mother Mona fills the screen with her presence in every scene. Her diva persona unfurls and fuels the fire of Mona’s rage at even the mere thought of being unappreciated. She makes her towering and infuriating.

Beau Is Afraid (A24)
Beau Is Afraid (A24)

Rounding out the supporting cast are Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan as the Stepford-ish couple who take Beau in, and newcomer Armen Nahapetian as young Beau, whose uncanny resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix had me almost thinking his face was a work of CGI magic.

Ultimately, Beau Is Afraid feels like Aster’s attempt to push the bounds not only of what he’s capable of, but what audiences will accept and even merely what he can get made. It defies standard genre categorization, pulling in elements of horror, but also drama and fairytales with absurdist comedy as the true throughline. It’s hard to imagine hardcore fans of Hereditary or Midsommar walking away from the theater and feeling like this is exactly what they expected, mostly because I don’t think it’s really what anyone expected. 

That Beau Is Afraid seems unconcerned with what people expect is merely another of its strong suits. Who’s to say one of our new kings of horror can’t take a hard turn toward Kaufmanesque self-reflection and meta-narrative? Aster’s voice is strong and Beau certainly feels like part of his oeuvre even as he expands the definition of what that really means. The only way to truly know what to make of it is to see it.

Beau Is Afraid cracks open our Oedipal impulses to take us on a wild, wild ride in theaters April 14th.

Beau Is Afraid Trailer:

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Sarah Gorr

Sarah Gorr is a film critic and copywriter based in Los Angeles. In her spare time she's crafting cocktails and working on her k/d. You can find her on Twitter at @sgorr and read more of her work at www.sarahgorr.com.

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