Beau Is Afraid, A24’s newest film from director Ari Aster, is both a dark comedy and a surreal, oedipal drama that feels like it might not exist were it not for how common it’s become for TV shows and films to tell stories about people living with the kind of anxiety that makes it hard to function. Through its brilliant direction and imaginative set design, Beau Is Afraid’s able to tell an arresting story that makes you feel quite keenly how horrific living in a perpetual state of fight or flight could be.
But unlike many other recent on-screen depictions of anxiety disorders — The Fabelmans, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, and HBO Max’s Velma all come to mind — Beau Is Afraid isn’t at all interested in making them seem manageable or like obstacles one simply overcomes through the power of love and conventional filmmaking.
Set in a reality not unlike our own where big cities are held up as examples of how society’s collapsing, Beau Is Afraid is an account of the life of Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), a skittish, deeply neurotic man who struggles to cope with an unspecified anxiety order. For Beau, each day is a new opportunity to marvel at and cower in fear of the outside world from the safety of his small apartment — the only place that feels truly safe to him. Though Beau knows that other people have no trouble leaving their homes and leading productive lives, whenever he chances a glance outside his window, all he can see are Mad Max-like scenes of apocalyptic anarchy, and it’s enough to convince him to stay inside.
How much of the horror Beau witnesses — streets full of violent, deranged people killing one another and sometimes waving their genitals around for fun — is actually real as opposed to it all being the waking nightmare of a disturbed man is a question Beau Is Afraid poses early on. Rather than ever providing a definitive answer, Beau Is Afraid keeps open the possibility of its heightened reality all being a kind of fantasy, or at least a collection of Beau’s paranoid delusions breathtakingly realized by the film’s background cast and production design from Fiona Crombie.
Phoenix plays Beau relatively straight and like a man who’s truly just trying to mind his own business. But everything about the world around Beau — from the expletive-ridden storefront signs to the go-go dancers grooving in front of his apartment building — creates a stressful and uneasy atmosphere that makes it easy to understand why he’s afraid so often, even if the danger might just be in his head.
Many of the things that scare Beau may be imaginary, but there’s never any doubt about how real and ever-present in his life Beau’s passive-aggressive mother Mona (Patti Lupone) is, despite her living across the country and being largely unseen in Beau Is Afraid when the film’s focused on the present. Even more than strangers on the street or news reports of there being a knife-wielding murderer on the loose, Mona — a self-made entrepreneur who built her business empire as a young single mother (played in flashbacks by Zoe Lister-Jones) — fills Beau with a crippling anxiety he only feels comfortable talking about with his unnamed therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson).
Through their sessions, Beau’s therapist has gotten him to a point where he’s at least able to discuss the disturbing, traumatic dreams about being born that begin to plague him in the buildup to Beau embarking on a trip to see his mother. But all of that progress (and then some) comes crashing down when, on the day Beau’s meant to catch his flight, both his house keys and his luggage mysteriously vanish just as he’s about to leave — an inexplicable turn of events that’s just the beginning of Beau being forced well outside of his comfort zone.
Much like Aster’s 2011 short Beau starring Billy Mayo as a nervous man being terrorized over the phone by a key-collecting demon, there’s a marked simplicity to Beau Is Afraid’s story despite all the fantastical turns it takes as Beau sets out to get to his mom’s house. All Beau really wants is a ride to the airport and to feel like he’s not disappointing Mona yet again the way he constantly did as a skittish teen (portrayed by Armen Nahapetian). But the complex emotions underpinning those desires — fears of his unlocked home being invaded, or that he’ll be murdered, or that no woman will ever love him like Mona — give Beau Is Afraid a frantic sense of urgency that makes everything about the film feel like an almost The Cell-esque deep dive into one man’s psychological neuroses.
As intermittently dark, twisted, and grotesque as the movie becomes, it’s also Aster’s most comedic project to date in the sense that it’s generously peppered with moments meant to cut through at least some of the dread that comes with being so in Beau’s head. But even with its levity and feeling like a shift away from the more horror-focused mode audiences may know Aster for, Beau Is Afraid focuses on many of the same themes present in Aster’s earlier works, like Munchausen and The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, which makes the film play like a sharpened expansion on ideas that seem to haunt him.
Beau Is Afraid is so distinct from Aster’s other films and ends on such a bewildering note that it’s more than likely to throw quite a few people for loops they aren’t expecting. But even as it’s spiraling in its final moments, and raising more questions than it ever feels interested in answering, there’s a mesmerizing, captivating quality to it all that makes it hard not to get drawn into the strangeness of Aster’s vision.
Beau Is Afraid also stars Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Kylie Rogers, Denis Ménochet, Parker Posey, Julia Antonelli, Richard Kind, Hayley Squires, and Michael Gandolfini. The movie hits theaters on April 21st.