The first time we meet Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) is not in the physical sense we would come to character introductions. At the very first moment he’s conceived, his mother has a collective freakout about him not crying right away. This is usually a normal reaction to hoping your newborn baby is good and healthy. However, this scene indicates the central issue within Beau Is Afraid. It’s writer/director Ari Aster’s artistic, somewhat confusing, and inventive way of chronicling a toxic mother/son relationship. While that is a simple scene, it hints at the unreal weight Beau operates under for the duration of his life.
Although many styles are at play to convey the world and stormy atmosphere within Beau, the film carries a relatively simple template. The present-day Beau is about to embark on what would seem like an innocent visit to see his widowed mother, Mona (Patti LuPone). He adorns him with calls and voicemails on how she’s so excited to see him. This instance brings up some anxiety for Beau, which is briefly scratched by his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson. At first, he asks Beau if he has a plan for a slight reaction. Once the therapist acts Beau like he wishes his mother was dead, it invokes a forceful rebuttal.
Does Beau wish he could break the metaphorical shackles of guilt off his psyche? It doesn’t seem like he’s putting up that much of a fight. For starters, the surrounding world around his a proverbial hellscape. Beau has to sprint full-on to his graffiti-tattered apartment building, fearing he may get assaulted. People actively get gouged. There’s a crazed person Birthday Boy Stab Man, who walks around naked with a knife. Can Beau get a decent night's sleep? Aster, at first, has placed his main character into a living embodiment of all his fears. It’s hard to believe this could be real.
When the faithful travel day comes, Beau oversleeps. (Who among us hasn’t done this once?) Disheveled and anxious, he tries to make his way to the airport – but in this rush, he loses his keys and luggage. Then, there’s a call to his mother, who expresses disappointment in a very gaslighted manner. At this point, Beau can’t even make it a point to assert himself – thus deferring to Mona and asking what he should do. It’s a theme throughout this warped hero’s journey and takes the audience on. We’ve all been on the receiving end of an “it’s fine.” It’s enough to disarm Beau of any clue to realize this targeted pressure is unacceptable. Instead, he reverts to childlike docility.
His path becomes set as Beau hears dreadful news about a rather darkly comedic event. Thus, Aster clarifies that he will make it so Beau goes through the most roundabout, fantastical means to get to his mother’s house. Beau Is Afraid is best to be looked at as a four-act event. An untimely accident lands Beau in the home of Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane) – an overly kind married couple who uses their home as a sanctuary for their late army-serving son Nathan. As the film makes a point to say, nothing seems right here. As Beau recovers, he stays in their daughter Toni’s (Kylie Rogers) room – adorned with K-Pop posters and brightly painted walls.
Anytime Beau tries to get some reprieve, Toni is there with her teenage angst to barrel through it. Not to mention Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), a former soldier who served Nathan, lives outside and struggles with PTSD. All these elements combine to make for some amusing moments as Phoenix takes a measured approach. Beau is not trying to harm anyone – he wants to make it home to atone for the perceived inaction and selfishness he’s done.
This is where the weirdness comes into the film. For a particular moment in time, Beau Is Afraid breaks into a beautifully illustrated sequence directed by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña. It plays as a fable showing what life could be for Beau and/or why the conclusion is so wrong, to begin with. It’s a fantasy inside a maybe fantasy. No matter how subdued he can be, Beau can’t be looked upon as a reliable narrator. Flashbacks featuring a younger version of Mona (Zoe-Lister Jones) and young Beau (Armen Nahapetian) show where the manipulation occurs.
She tells him things about his late father that warps his sense of virginity and sexual autonomy to where he’s deathly scared by the prospect of it. When Beau meets a girl named Elaine (Julia Antonelli) he likes, it becomes a huge issue. Mona is skillful at what points in Beau’s mind she chooses to attack under the guise of love. That’s the most horrific instance to be considered – that love can be conditional.
Beau Is Afraid is bookended by a bonkers final act that is elevated with great performances from Patti Lupone and Parker Posey (as adult Elaine). Posey’s Elaine inhabits the innocence of possible love that was taken away from Beau, and Lupone is the hammer in his heart to remind him it’s not possible. There are hints there is more to the surface of Beau’s wants and needs beyond the matriarchal figure who holds power over him. In how Phoenix portrays him, you’ll wish to understand better what they are. However, Aster, with the sometimes dreamy cinematographic imagery Pawel Pogorzelski strives to blur the line between a tangible reality.
Perhaps Beau is too far down the self-loathing hole to bring this about for himself. Could you consider this to be a somewhat elongated way to say a man has some serious mommy issues? Yes. Beau Is Afraid is entertaining, confusing, confounding, and emotional – you can apply many descriptive adjectives. When a man cannot make up his mind for himself, there will usually be a person who gladly does it for them. How does that feel when it is supposed to be a protector?
If anything, Beau Is Afraid is that lump in your throat that you can’t get rid of when you want to say the right thing. As often as we see attics holding secrets and surrealist scenarios of a man torn apart, perhaps the “scary” thing about this film is how devotion can be dangerous.