Movie Review: Beau is Afraid

It's extreme, indulgent and outlandish. The new film from "Hereditary" director Ari Aster is also troubling — and, at times, unforgettable.


It’s incredible. I’ll never watch it again.

“Beau is Afraid,” the third film from rising auteur Ari Aster, is a parable of anxiety gone wild. Through the mind of the title character (Joaquin Phoenix) and the lens of the director, every flight-of-fancy fear is real; society is breaking down, people are waiting to kill you, calamity and misfortune lie in wait after every routine mistake.

Like the director’s prior films, “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” “Beau is Afraid” is visceral in its terror and deliberately overwhelming in its presentation. Unlike those films, however, there is irony here as well — even bits of humor. I laughed during “Beau is Afraid” and delighted in finding background details that bordered on whimsical.

Those elements are not, however, a softening of the director’s style; they are the spoonful of sugar without which this bitter medicine could not possibly go down. The depiction of anxiety and generational trauma in “Beau is Afraid” is so real and keenly depicted that I had to actively dissuade my mind from thinking too deeply about what I was watching, lest (like Beau) I become overwhelmed with panic.

Panic, after all, lurks around every corner for Beau. He intends to go visit his mother, but things keep getting in his way. His neighborhood is filled with random violence and chaos, including a roaming serial killer; one neighbor mistakenly excoriates him for uncommitted sins while another steals his keys and luggage; a trove of miscreants invades his apartment. Eventually, he’s hit by a car while running, naked, from a panicked police officer.

Oh — and he learns his mother was killed by a falling chandelier.

All the stabbings and chaos are mere background noise for Beau, whose true anxiety is his overbearing and emasculating mother. There are surprises and twists in turn for Beau’s epic journey home, and no one — least of all Beau — thinks any part of the trip is going to go particularly well. You’ll root for him, but only because he’s a hopeless underdog.

Undoubtedly, it’s a little much — both in its extremity and its indulgence. It’s three hours and feels longer, as Beau’s trials spiral and stack. Sometimes those branching pathways lead to a revelation that would’ve been better left on the cutting-room floor, and at least one sequence does have the effect of weakening the impact.

Its imperfections, however, only increase its beguiling, difficult appeal. You’ll happily ignore the weaker moments in “Beau is Afraid,” and its stronger scenes are likely to pop into your memory like frames of nightmares. It should absolutely be experienced by hardy and adventurous viewers — but only once.

My Rating: 8/10

“Beau is Afraid” is now playing in theaters.

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