Talk Horror to Me: Familial issues and disorienting narratives in ‘Beau Is Afraid’

In “Talk Horror to Me,” columnist Emma Kexin Wang ’24 reviews horror, psycho thrillers and all things scary released in the past year.

Ari Aster is the director one has in mind when thinking of the typical A24 horror movie. His full-length debut, “Hereditary,” became A24’s highest-grossing film before it was topped by “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” His second film, “Midsommar,” further cemented Aster alongside Jordan Peele as a new voice in horror. 

However, Aster’s newest film “Beau Is Afraid” (2023), starring Joaquin Phoenix, saw a more divided reception. A three-hour-long blend of intense paranoia, Kafkaesque absurdism and Aster’s signature family issues, “Beau Is Afraid” was praised by some and deemed to be Aster’s career-ending work by others.

While Aster’s previous films were not exactly easy to decipher (I’ve watched “Hereditary” five times and I’m still finding new details), “Beau Is Afraid” directly sets out to confuse its sad, paranoid protagonist and the audience along with him. 

Not only does the plot twist and turn, but the visuals become more and more absurd, a seemingly drug-induced hallucination reminiscent of “Midsommar.” However, when one gets too absorbed into deciphering these events, one can lose sight of the intended overall confusing viewing experience.

The film is based on Aster’s short film “Beau” (2011), which starts with Beau (Billy Mayo) indefinitely delayed in visiting his mother because his keys are stolen, and progresses into a series of horrifically banal yet strange incidents. The film ends when Beau calls his mother to pick him up, his expression much like that of a scared child. At the other end of the receiver, we are shown a monstrous creature with a hairy back (presumably Beau’s mother) toying with a chain of keys. She had orchestrated the trial all along.

“Beau Is Afraid” leans heavily into Beau’s extreme mommy issues. The first person to enter the frame is Beau’s therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who then opens the door to reveal Beau, his arms hanging awkwardly at his side like a child. Immediately, Beau is established as a character whom things happen to — someone forced to act under the control of others.

As the therapy session continues, Beau reveals that he hasn’t seen his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone) in several months, to which his therapist asks: “And are you feeling guilty about that?” When Beau is unable to answer, the therapist writes the word Guilty in big, cursive letters in his otherwise empty notepad. 

While this might have garnered a laugh in the theater, the weight of the word grows throughout the movie with Beau’s increasingly failed attempts to go home and see his mother. With each new and more ridiculous delay in Beau’s journey (Beau losing his keys, being hit by a truck and being forced to take drugs by a teenage girl), Phoenix’s amazing performance showcases Beau’s intensifying guilt and fear. 

At the same time, there looms the question of how much Mona planned for Beau’s misfortunes. Looking at the absolute paranoid-mess of a protagonist, we can safely say Mona’s over-controlling parenting techniques have created a character constantly afraid of the world around him. 

When Beau finally makes it home, he is greeted by Mona’s admonishing comment: “You make everyone do it for you. You think that makes you innocent?” And thus emerges the central struggle between Beau and Mona: Beau’s guilt and gradual realization that his mother was abusive, and Mona’s denial of his innocence. The outcome of this struggle has arguably been determined since the inscription of the word “guilty.”

I wouldn’t recommend “Beau Is Afraid” to everyone. All I can say is, whether you hate or love it, A24 and Ari Aster have stayed true to their artistic visions, no matter how gut-wrenchingly disturbing it is.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Originally posted 2023-11-14 07:36:48.