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What the hell is going on in Beau Is Afraid?

The myths, mess, and creepy magic of Ari Aster’s latest nightmare.

A middle-aged man in pajamas stands, looking bewildered. His face is a bit dinged up.
Joaquin Phoenix in Beau Is Afraid.
A24
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Warning: Spoilers for Beau Is Afraid follow. Lots of spoilers. Proceed at your own risk!

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.
Spoilers! Beware!

I have this recurring dream — a nightmare, really — where I’m trying to go somewhere, I must be there, I simply must, but people keep making me late, and no matter what I do, I can’t make any progress. It’s terrible. I hate it.

It’s also kind of the plot of Beau Is Afraid, a demented unraveling of the hero’s journey from Ari Aster, the guy who brought you Hereditary, Midsommar, some stuff you can never forget seeing. It is not, properly, a horror movie, though there’s horrifying stuff in it. It’s more of a nightmare movie, in which our main character, Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), is just having a pretty bad time of it. If it’s about anything, it’s about guilt. It’s what would happen if all the stuff you worry about in your therapist’s office — that everyone was mad at you, that you’re a huge disappointment to your parents, that you’ll get accused of doing something wrong and not even know what it is — was true. At every turn, the worst thing happens.

Obviously, it’s great and I love it, and a lot of people won’t. And that’s fine. It’s manifestly not for everyone.

Beau Is Afraid is also, I think, the least scrutable of Aster’s three features. You know what’s happening, but you’re never totally sure why or what’s important to remember. Backtracking over the plot, you can start to see the outlines emerging, some themes, some breadcrumbs scattered throughout. There are little rabbit trails you can trace, jokes to notice in the background (the signs scattered throughout this movie are a rich source of humor), part of why your second viewing of the movie might be more illuminating than the first.

Yet it’s important to remember that Beau Is Afraid, which is out now, is not a puzzle to be solved or a mystery to be unlocked. That’s by design. Sink into it and don’t try to pick it apart, and you’ll get it. Get stuck on the details and you’ll lose the plot. So to speak.

Joaquin Phoenix, in a hospital gown, sitting on a patio chair, with an ordinary suburban house in the background.
Beau gets bad news.
A24

If you really want to wrap your head around Beau, though, there are two main things to keep in mind. One is the promise of the title: that this is a movie about a guy named Beau, and he is afraid. And not even afraid of something specific, but afraid in a chaotically multidirectional manner. If it’s out there, Beau is afraid of it.

The other is that this is a funhouse mirror version of the classic hero’s journey story, as codified by Joseph Campbell, sometimes called the “monomyth.” In its normal state, the hero’s journey is a narrative archetype for a particular kind of classic story. Think of, say, Odysseus, or Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: A hero is called out of his familiar life and armed by some supernatural power to embark on an adventure. He crosses the threshold into an unknown world, where he encounters helpers and mentors, challenges and temptations that he must overcome, and ultimately a moment of revelation, where he stares into an abyss and is reborn. Having been transformed, he must atone for himself, and then can return home with a gift. At home, everything is familiar but changed because the hero himself is changed. Now, he has freedom to live.

Aster, being Aster, has turned the whole thing inside out. But you can discern the outlines of the monomyth inside Beau Is Afraid, perhaps in a hilarious reinforcement of Campbell’s sense that the hero’s journey is built into the human heart. The ways it disintegrates into chaos is what makes it comitragical, or tragicomical. It’s funny and messed up, and that’s what makes it great.

Act 1: The Departure

At core, Beau Is Afraid is the tale of a very lost soul named Beau Wasserman, the only son of his mother Mona Wasserman (played at different ages by Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti Lupone), a business maven who raised him on her own in their town of Wasserton. Throughout his childhood, Beau was his mother’s companion; he appeared in her advertisements, absorbed all her attention, was the focus of her life. She presented him with a world of dangers, in which she was his safe guide, and maybe his only safe guide.

Now paunchy and middle-aged, Beau is the saddest of sacks living in the worst neighborhood you could possibly imagine, even if you’ve personally lived in a very bad neighborhood indeed. (It’s called Corrina, in the fictional state of Corrina, but resembles more than anything a Fox News fever dream of what a city is like.) His apartment is over a store called “Erectus Ejectus” (you get it) and the lobby is filled with obscene graffiti. Corpses rot in the streets. One local seems to spend a lot of time trying to dig people’s eyeballs out of their skulls while grinning maniacally.

This is Beau’s familiar starting place — well, rewind. Not quite. The movie actually starts with Beau’s birth, which is presented as a moment of bewilderment from baby Beau’s point of view. It was safe and quiet inside Mona, but bursting into the world is so terrifying that he can’t even cry.

Adult Beau is scared of most things, and his psychiatrist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) does not make a great deal of headway with him, prescribing him a “cool new drug” for anxiety that must be taken with water. Beau’s dismal apartment is loud and dingy, and next to the TV where he watches anxiety-inducing news bulletins is a stack of books with titles like You Don’t Always Have to Live Like This. There are posters on the doors with warnings of a brown recluse spider, concluded, spectacularly, with a Winston Churchill quote: “The price of greatness is responsibility.” The place sucks. The water goes out.

In one of the first hints that this world is not all it seems to be, Beau falls asleep the night before he’s meant to fly home to visit his mother. He wakes to a note slipped under his door courteously asking him to turn down his music, although he not only isn’t playing music (Beau is not really the night-rocking type), but can’t hear music playing at all. Notes appear over the night, increasingly aggressive, till suddenly Beau can hear the music — it still isn’t coming from his place — and just crawls under the covers and plugs his ears, hoping it will all go away.

Of course, he oversleeps.

Joaquin Phoenix, his head pretty beat up now, looks terrified.
Beau: Still afraid!
A24

This is the pattern of Beau Is Afraid: something kind of weird happens, and instead of dealing with it, Beau just knuckles under, and then ends up paying a worse price for his lack of courage than seems strictly necessary. There are 10 ways every situation could go wrong, but inevitably what happens is some 11th worse thing.

On his rush out the door, Beau goes back to grab a small box of dental floss that he almost packed the night before — we watched him hesitate over it — but elected to leave in his bathroom. Now he needs it; this is a man who has been made to be afraid of terrible things happening, like missing one day of flossing and ending up with gum cancer or something. But when he does this, his keys disappear, as does his bag, and now he’s in a real pickle because of course he can’t leave his door unlocked, “open to the public,” as he thinks of it. Calling home, he discovers his worst fears are true: His mother is immensely disappointed with him. Another nightmare.

The way to watch Beau Is Afraid is to assume that you’re not watching “reality,” in a kind of empirical sense. Instead, whatever’s happening onscreen is the worst thing that Beau can imagine. Those fears start to compound and overlap and make one another worse. And it all gets especially worse when he takes his anti-anxiety meds, only to realize that the water is out in his building and if he doesn’t drink water he’ll die, but oh there’s water in the convenience store across the street, but if he runs out without his keys what if the entire neighborhood of derelicts breaks into his apartment, what then? What will he do!?

He does the only thing he can do to stay alive, and what he expects to happen is exactly what happens, and Beau spends the night trapped on scaffolding outside his apartment, too scared to clear the invaders out. It’s very clear that this particular not-hero (not an antihero, even, just profoundly not a hero) is going to need a boot in the butt to get on his journey to see his mother.

Then, on the phone with a UPS guy at his mother’s house, he discovers his mother is dead. Or at least it looks that way.

Now he’s got a whole other set of problems and is even less inclined to leave his house until forced to by an unexpected tangle with the man hiding in his ceiling. Nude, Beau runs into the street, encounters a cop who’s also shaking with fear and about to shoot him and, almost mercifully, gets slammed by some kind of van driven by Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane).

Beau has crossed the threshold.

Act 2: Initiation

After sleeping for two days straight, Beau wakes up in Grace and Roger’s house, and at this point you might be starting to suspect a little of what’s going to happen. They seem nice enough, but things in their house seem kind of weird. There’s a shrine to their dead son, killed in action in Caracas — a true hero — whose disturbed buddy Jeeves (Denis Menochet), also a hero (as they frequently tell him) lives out back. As if stuck in a ridiculous foil, Beau has been put up in their teenage daughter Toni’s (Kylie Rogers) room, postered with tributes to K-pop boy bands, rather than their son’s empty room. And Toni is pissed about it. Hints she drops suggest that Grace and Roger are trying to adopt Beau, a man who is very obviously not of adoptable age.

A middle-aged man in a bedroom with all kinds of posters on the walls, mostly for pop stars.
Beau wakes up in an unfamiliar room.
A24

Meanwhile, Beau gets a call from his mother’s lawyer (Richard Kind) who bellows at him over the phone that his poor mother, who should have been buried the day she died by Jewish custom, has been stuck unburied because Beau hasn’t bothered to show up yet. Beau’s biggest fear: that his mother will be ashamed and disgraced, and it will be his fault, and he won’t even be able to help it. His protestations that he got into a horrible accident have no effect. The lawyer orders him to come immediately to Wasserton so his mother won’t be further humiliated.

Beau tries. He really tries. Roger promises to take him to Wasserton, then postpones. Grace slips him strange notes about not incriminating himself. It’s as if Beau is being given a series of tests — like a hero would — that, if passed, will teach him valuable lessons. But he just keeps slipping down a hall of mirrors, each stranger than the last.

The big moment, where he might have a profound revelation, comes when Toni and a friend trick him into smoking some kind of joint (he asks what it is; “it’s three things,” they reply, with no further elaboration) and Beau spirals. But no; nothing. The next day, he discovers that there’s some kind of surveillance system in the house.

It comes to a head when Toni drags him into her dead brother’s room, insisting he help her paint — though he knows Grace doesn’t want the room touched — and then screams at him, hysterically, that this is a test. He isn’t passing it, and she drinks paint, and he flees.

A Respite, Gone Wrong

Then there’s an interlude, where you start to wonder if maybe things are looking up for Beau. Having run into the woods, he meets a pregnant young woman (Hayley Squires) who tends to his cuts and brings him to a little commune of players, all of whom are orphans. They travel around putting on plays, and they’re about to put on another.

And of course, the play is the hero’s journey. Beau becomes transfixed, hypnotized, inserting himself into what he’s watching, which starts out like the archetypal tale and then starts to kind of go off the rails. (This is also when the movie spins out into an artfully animated section, with Beau styled as a hero going through an animated world.) Eventually, the tale wraps into reality (well, “reality”), and the hero version of Beau walks into a woods where a play is going on that seems to be about him and his three sons.

Beau, in suspenders and a straw hat, walks into an animated field, with an angel flying in the air.
Hero Beau.
A24

Pause here to note that Beau has experienced a series of flashbacks and memories throughout the action thus far. There are two main categories. One is a dream he has, in which he sees his mother trying to undress him for the bath, as a boy, as he refuses. She’s livid at him. The dream expands; eventually he sees her shutting someone up in the attic.

The other is definitely a memory: Young Beau (Arman Nahapetian), on a cruise with his mother, meets a girl named Elaine (Julia Antonelli), on whom he develops a crush. His attraction to her is noticeable to his mother, who seems both pleased and a little strange about it. Elaine kisses Beau and then, in a weird twist, is removed from the cruise by her mother. Before she leaves, she gives him a Polaroid he took of her and makes him promise to “wait” for her. He promises.

That’s linked to a third weird thing, which is Beau’s belief — because his mother told him, as a boy — that if he ejaculates, he will die. His father, she tells him, died the night that he was conceived; the same happened to his grandfather and great-grandfather. Beau believes her, without question, and so he claims at his age that he’s never been with anyone, ever.

So how he has three sons is not exactly clear, but the confusion seems to clear his head and he’s back to watching the play. He meets a man in the woods who claims to have known his father, which seems impossible. Or is it? Before he can figure it out, Jeeves comes crashing through the underbrush, and Beau is off running again.

Act III: Return

At last, Beau makes it to his mother’s house. But he is too late. The funeral is over. The house is empty. He walks through it, bereft, examining what his mother’s life was. In the middle of a long gallery of photos of Beau on Mona’s spiral staircase wall, there’s a recent photo of Beau, so recent that we’ve seen it before. Mona’s whole life seems to have been wrapped around Beau.

Then a woman shows up, and it’s Elaine (Parker Posey), and in a moment where you think that maybe Beau is about to receive some hero’s reward, they have sex. He is astonished to discover that he doesn’t die. He is elated. He is grateful. And then, he is horrified to discover that she ... does die. And his mother, apparently not dead, has been watching all this time. And, worse, she’s heard his therapy tapes, in which he routinely talks about her. It’s the kind of dream you are desperate to wake up from.

What transpires is a final confrontation with his mother (whom Elaine referred to as “the dragon”), a final ordeal he must face, and he simply does not nail it. She excoriates him, and he finds himself inside his very, very worst nightmare: that his mother isn’t just mad at him for missing his flight, but has ascribed myriad slights and ill intent to actions he performed unwittingly, even when he was a boy, even when he was a baby. He is wrong and has been wrong his whole life, a passive lump without a will of his own, so scared of the world that he never does anything at all. She hates him, she says. And he chokes her.

You can watch Beau Is Afraid very carefully and get near the end and still have a whole lot of questions.

For instance: Is that Beau’s father in the attic? And if the answer is yes, what is Beau’s father in the attic: the giant phallus, or the guy who Beau briefly sees before his horror takes over?

Or: Is Beau actually being Truman Showed by his mother, living in a world that’s totally set up by her? Did she deliberately create for him a world in which he would disappoint her, or did she create a world in which he might succeed, and he disappointed her anyhow? Both seem possible. She’s in cahoots with the therapist; she employs at least Elaine and Roger, and maybe Grace (she knows about the surveillance channel); the housing complex he lives in was advertised by her. Every moment of his life is on her walls, sometimes in the form of advertisements. After Elaine’s untimely demise, Beau seems on the verge of asking whether Elaine was a plant all this time, “from the beginning.” And there’s that photo on the staircase.

Or is that just Beau’s head playing tricks on him? Does it even make sense to ask that question?

There are other little mysteries that lead you down strange pathways. But to get too swept up in them is probably a fool’s errand. Beau Is Afraid is not “about” something, exactly; it’s not a movie with a point to make or a puzzle to unlock. It’s weird and offensive and wickedly funny and confusing as hell. That, for me, is what makes it worthwhile; it’s entertainment that respects my ability to be confused and uncomfortable and also have a blast.

It’s really no wonder that the last section of Beau Is Afraid — the “road back” sequence, in the hero’s journey mythology — goes so horribly wrong. Beau pilots a little boat onto the peaceful night waters he’s seen in his dream, and into a cave, and you think he is maybe about to return home, having learned a lesson. But nope! The lights come on and he’s in a stadium where everyone can judge him, especially his mother and her lawyer. (This scene seems to borrow heavily from Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life, which Aster picked for a series on his Beau influences.) He has a defense lawyer, true, but it’s a limp defense — the phone number emblazoned above the lawyer’s head is 1-800-DEFENCE, presumably because they couldn’t get the S — and the lawyer ends up splattered on a rock in a moment a bit reminiscent of Midsommar.

Defeated, Beau never reaches home. Or maybe this is his home. In his last moments, his eyes, full of sadness, also reach some resignation. Of course this is how things end; of course things will never get better. Beau has confronted the dragon and failed. He’s not transformed. He can’t atone for himself. He’s failed the tests. He’s given away any gift he received. He’s refused to gain courage, refused the help of friends, and discovered that every mentor along the way was a trap. His mother constructed a world so airtight he never actually learned to breathe, and now, faced with a twisted mirror of his life, one in which his main sin is passivity, he is out of chances to act.

Beau will never change. And so, he just combusts.

Which might be one way the movie reclaims the hero’s journey. Now, at any rate, he’s free.

Beau Is Afraid is playing in theaters.

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