This article appeared in the April 20, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here

Beau Is Afraid (Ari Aster, 2023)

In Ari Aster’s third feature, Beau Is Afraid, the hapless Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) stumbles into a picaresque series of misadventures on his way to his childhood home. The visit is, at first, motivated by the anniversary of his father’s death. But when a chandelier falls on and decapitates his mother, Mona, the occasion shifts to her funeral. This premise is the first of the film’s many grim jokes—for this middle-aged son of a domineering Jewish mother, it’s the ultimate guilt trip.

As the title suggests, Beau is terrified of most everything. Some of his concerns are more well-founded than others. The carnivalesque street scene outside his city apartment is particularly deranged: there’s a rotting corpse, a person getting his eyes gouged out, an ineffectual policeman, and an off-season SantaCon reveler. It’s no wonder that Beau tosses fitfully in bed, panicked by the screams and sirens below. But he also confesses to his therapist, with the same level of alarm, that he accidentally swallowed his mouthwash. Phoenix inhabits Beau as a self-effacing schlub, always apologizing, even to his tormenters.

It’s possible to understand Beau as a paranoiac who experiences the world as though everyone is out to persecute him. For someone with this outlook, life is a relentless series of traps. But is Beau’s world a projection of his psyche, or is it really as frightening as it seems? Aster plays it both ways. When Beau steps out to the convenience store across the street, a horde of crazies that has been milling about rushes into his apartment and immediately begins trashing it. Outside of nightmare logic, none of this makes sense, least of all the man who politely washes Beau’s dishes amid the ruckus. Soon after, Beau, nude for reasons too complicated to succinctly explain, is threatened with a gun, run over by a truck, and, for good measure, repeatedly stabbed by a grinning lunatic known locally as “The Birthday Boy Stab Man.” He blacks out and awakens in the pink bedroom of a K-pop–obsessed teenage girl (Kylie Rogers), in the suburban home of Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane). At that moment, I half expected Beau’s injuries to vanish, like in a cartoon or after a bad dream. But they stubbornly remain, his cheek abraded for the rest of the film with evidence that this unlikely parade of horrors actually happened.

Grace and Roger explain that it was their truck that slammed into him, and they offer—with sinister generosity—to take care of him for as long as he wants. At first he welcomes their hospitality. Like Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), the violently disturbed and heavily medicated army veteran living in a trailer in Grace and Roger’s backyard, he’s treated by them as an adopted son. They even give him a pair of monogrammed silk pajamas. Lane, smiling behind dark-rimmed glasses, is especially amiable. He offers to drive “my dude”—his nickname for Beau—to his mother’s home, and when the delays start to pile up, you still want to believe him, even though you know he’s lying. Ryan’s gentle coos, meanwhile, lull Beau into a woozy calm, but when he inadvertently crosses her, Grace unleashes a Medean fury, commanding Jeeves to “rip him apart.”

Beau flees again, eventually arriving at the destination and source of all his terror, the imposing modern home of his now deceased mother. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that she tormented him his entire life with the story of his father’s death, the result of Wassermann père’s first, and last, ejaculation, expelled on his wedding night. Beau was the product of this deadly union, and, as his mother explains, he is cursed with the same vague medical condition. As indicated by his distended testicles (seen in multiple scenes), he has never once tried to test the theory. Call him Oedipus Interruptus.

Phoenix is brilliantly cast, and plays a version of his troubled character in Joker (2019), but with different coping strategies. Like that filmBeau Is Afraid is preoccupied with notions of guilt and responsibility. Instead of Joker’s cynical game of blaming social ills for Arthur’s wounded masculinity, here the family is the absurdist system where the innocent are punished for sins they never committed. Mona—played as a young woman by Zoe Lister-Jones and in her prime by Patti LuPone—is as powerful as Beau is impotent. She is prosecutor, witness, and judge of her son’s alleged misdeeds. It would not be a stretch to imagine that his entire ragged journey home was something she masterminded—LuPone once played Evita on Broadway, after all.

Throughout the film, Aster stuffs little jokes into the corners of shots, many of which are genuinely funny (my favorites: the “Shiva Steve’s” funeral truck and a TV dinner called “O’Hana: The Best of Ireland and Hawaii”). But these are almost always outside of Beau’s awareness. In the meantime, casual gestures toward very real, recognizable contemporary crises—poverty, crime, veteran mental health—become psychological window dressing for the film‘s immersion into Beau’s neuroses. Since their meaning is lost on him, a person incapable of differentiating between real and imagined threats, they exist only to provoke fear in the audience. Unlike Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in Joker, itself a crude and bad film, there’s no sense that Beau was ever shaped by anything other than his mother’s narcissism. Paranoid or not, justified or not: the distinction just doesn’t matter; the social world is merely decorative. What’s left is a roller coaster of sheer feeling: sadness, fear, and loneliness. Reason enough to make a film, I suppose. But as solipsisms go, this is a fairly torturous one.

Without revealing too much, Beau ultimately does what his mother fears, which is to betray her. In this film, guilt must be assigned, and by proclaiming his innocence, he condemns her. In the film’s middle act, Beau, lost in the woods, encounters a theater troupe who call themselves “The Orphans of the Forest.” Compelled to watch their performance, he is astounded to realize that the show dramatizes his own life. At its conclusion, he jumps up from his seat and proclaims: “This is me! This is my story!”

If only the film ended there, with Beau finally taking charge of his own story. But he presses on, and in the film’s climax he confronts his mother, seemingly back from the grave. LuPone plays Mona like a volcano who, accordingly, engulfs her son. But while excoriating him (regally, outlandishly—I could have watched another hour of a velvet-swishing LuPone) she hints at another source of her anguish. Gesturing to a portrait of a small, mean-looking woman, she wails about being unloved by her own mother. All she ever tried to do, she explains, was to love her son and right the wrongs she inherited.

Beau listens, bewildered, as his mother recounts a litany of her maternal worries, yowling, “Is he scared enough of the world?” The outlandishness of it all aside, as a parent trying to raise a child in confusing and hostile times, I admit to having more than a little sympathy for her. In the film’s opening scene, we attend Beau’s blistering, violent birth, which is evidently a trauma for both mother and child. “Why doesn’t he cry?” Mona wails. “What’s wrong with him?” She sounds horrified, too.

Genevieve Yue is an associate professor of culture and media at the New School and author of Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality (Fordham University Press, 2020).