‘Beau Is Afraid’ is an anxiety-inducing epic you need to see

Beau is Afraid is an anxiety-inducing epic you need to see | Soho House

Screening across our Houses this month, Ari Aster’s latest offering is a Joaquin Phoenix-led psychosexual thrill ride

Saturday 13 May 2023   By Hanna Flint

As I left a screening of Beau Is Afraid this week, the first thought that popped into my head was a Ron Burgundy quote from Anchorman: ‘Well, that escalated quickly’. Whew. Writer-director Ari Aster doesn’t waste the film’s three-hour runtime launching his eponymous lead on a hellish odyssey of psychosexual, dysfunctional and violent nightmares. By the time the credits roll, you might just want to call your therapist. It’s a lot. But sometimes a lot is just the cinema ticket.

Beau Is Afraid is somewhat of a departure from Aster’s intensely slow-paced and sinister storytelling. But Hereditary and Midsommar might seem like a walk in the park compared to this anxiety-inducing epic that turns up the gallows humour to 11. Aesthetically, it’s as ornately outfitted as a Wes Anderson film. As a mythological journey, it hints at Homer’s The Iliad and Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, while its psychosomatic narrative draws on the darkly existential flair of Charlie Kaufman. If you’ve seen Synecdoche, New York, then you’ll be well prepared for the bizarre, satirical misadventures that Joaquin Phoenix’s hero is drawn into on what should be a simple attempt to get home to his mother.

I use the term ‘hero’ here loosely, because as much as this cinematic endeavour functions similarly to a Greek tragedy, Beau is anything but heroic. As the title suggests, he is afraid of everything and everyone. He avoids living and, given the extreme world Aster has built for him, that’s no surprise. It’s as though every intrusive thought he could possibly have about life, the people in it and the disintegrating state of our society has been realised in explosive detail. Beau lives in a dilapidated flat, in a squalid apartment building on a crime-ridden block where dead bodies litter the streets, vagrants terrorise the locals, and every time he steps out into this tenth circle of hell his life is threatened.

If we are dealing in Jungian archetypes, Beau might be more closely associated with The Innocent. Phoenix impeccably portrays a naive middle-aged man who wants to do the right thing in life, but is stunted by the fear of being punished for doing it bad or wrong. There’s a scene early on where, due to some severely unfortunate circumstances, he’s forced to tell his mother Mona (played by Patti LuPone and Zoe Lister-Jones in flashbacks) that he’s going to miss his flight home to see her. Beau, so scared of upsetting her further, asks her what to do. Passively aggressively, she says, ‘I’m sure you’ll do what’s right’ and in response he defeatedly asks what’s the right thing to do. It’s a moment that perfectly sums up their codependent relationship, but also the excruciatingly inert way Beau has lived his life thus far. Only the very visceral threat of death seems to ever motivate him into action.

Beau is Afraid is an anxiety-inducing epic you need to see | Soho House

Beau is dragged, battered and beaten on his harrowing yet hilarity-filled journey to get back to his hometown, and I’m almost surprised that one of the eccentric characters he meets isn’t a cyclops. There’s a Misery-like pitstop with a suburban family, a travelling theatre troupe who inspire an interior play within a play of Beau’s subconscious, gorgeously rendered in both animation and vibrant Wizard Of Oz-esque live-action scenery. From Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane’s creepy good samaritans and Parker Posey’s old flame Elaine to Stephen McKinley Henderson’s ineffective therapist and LuPone/Lister-Jones’s formidable Mona, every supporting actor holds their own against Phoenix’s quivering protagonist. As dark and despairing as this film gets, casting such experienced comedic performers who know when to let a line sit or a silence breathe, ensures there’s plenty of moments to choke out a laugh in relief.

By the final act, Beau Is Afraid poses far more questions than is answered, and that’s no bad thing. In fact, it’s revelatory. The particular discomfort of not knowing is exactly what makes the film a phenomenal reflection of the ambiguity of life. Ari Aster revels in the uncertainty to deliver one of the most potent cautionary tales against inertia and ambivalence. It’s an exhilaratingly, mind-boggling examination of the act of not acting, acted beautifully.

‘Beau Is Afraid’ will be showing at selected Houses this month. Check out our screening schedule to see what’s on at each location around the world.