Beau is Afraid (and so are we) – A24 Movie Reviews

In a world that bombards us with reasons to be anxious all day every day, Ari Aster's latest unsettling film production, Beau is Afraid, speaks to us in the language of twitchy-eyed terror. Whether it’s WebMD convincing you that you have a life-threatening illness or the news cycle of the next deadly virus, opportunities to worry are rife.

In Beau is Afraid, the anxiety bar is raised further, starting with the regular anxiety of a dentist appointment and rapidly levelling up to a deadly spider infestation minutes in. And if that wasn’t enough, the savage psychos roaming the streets outside keep Beau firmly locked inside his apartment.

Though exaggerated, Beau is Afraid is rooted in social truths, a heightened reflection on the dystopian age we live in.

We watch in a state of increasing discomfort, pinpointing everything that could go wrong as well as the underplayed nasty shit already happening. And in doing this, we become like Beau: afraid. Afraid to step outside, afraid to defend ourselves, afraid to look under the bed for fear of poisonous spiders weaving webs inside our dirty socks.

But as fearful as Beau is and as desperate for peace and quiet as he is, venture out he must. His hero quest is not to rid the world of all its anxiety-inducing evils, but simply, to visit his mother.

When vigilantes steal Beau’s suitcase and he subsequently misses his flight home, his mother’s disappointment rings down the phone and settles upon Joaquin Phoenix’ deeply crevassed brow. “What’s the right thing to do?” He asks her, beseechingly. The silence down the line gives him an answer even if it does take an inciting incident for him to realize it.

So, doing whatever it takes to get home, Beau journeys through the Wild West that is now the whole of America, in the ultimate test of mother love. Proving this love is not easy, however. As Beau moves through cities overrun with vigilantes and wise forest communities showcasing stageplays of Beau’s life story, confusion is inevitable.

Anyone who has ever had a panic attack will know that when anxiety takes over, everything is death. Your mind cannot distinguish between what worries are worthy, and what worries are just flitting through, only cortisol chemical release and option to fight or run.

The role of cortisol is to make you wide-eyed and aware that threat is imminent. In Beau is Afraid, we see the threat looming large - very real threats and not-so-real ones - tangled in amongst a complex narrative. Everything about this dramatic world causes cognitive stress, where worries about environmental destruction and fears of root canals all melt together to become one great mishmash of terror.

Pulling these terrors apart is an art, but it’s only through disentangling the past that Beau can figure out why he is the way he is.

Death is just one item on the list of Beau’s worries. Fear of humiliation is another, coming predominantly from the women in his life. As well as a disappointed, overbearing mother, two teenage girls serve as unlikely antagonists, bullying Beau into hitting a spliff and mocking him when he chokes. “Harder, don’t stop,” they encourage him, using the language of sexual fantasy to bewilder and control him.

Broken up and impressionable from the drugs, Beau earns a reprieve from anxiety in pre-pubescent flashbacks, reminding him instead of his mother’s maternal sadism. In a sultry voice, stroking his forehead with soft, moisturized hands, his mother utters ‘Men are blind’ before announcing her pride. Confusion is rife, but there are some connections to make, particularly on Beau’s strained interactions with women in all their expectation and judgement.

All the men save Beau are rageful, unempathetic or oblivious, while all the women are unhinged and controlling, screaming at Beau to drink paint and blackmailing him if he doesn’t with accusations of sexual assault. Born of a sex-commoditising capitalist hellscape, everyone in Beau’s world is fighting. But also, it’s only through the women in his life that Beau finds moments of contented stillness.

Injured and vulnerable, Beau is taken in by an older couple who use him as a replacement for their fallen soldier son who never returned from war. In this new relationship, Beau gets to relive memories of his childhood, loved yet ashamed of the feelings he has towards a doting older lady.

Though deathly afraid of the world, when it comes to it the mentality of ‘kill or be killed’ wins out. Even naked in the bathtub, Beau is never fully relaxed, he should be ready to fight for his life at any moment.

Bizarre and unexplained and all the more symbolic for it, Beau is Afraid is everything a good A24 movie must be. Though all the better for being read deeply, perpetual confusion is kind of the point here. As the audience, we share Beau’s feelings, tense to see where his disastrous narrative will take him.

Between coming face to face with a life-size dick and balls in the attic of his mother’s home – representative of his father’s shameful and ‘perverse’ sexuality – and winding up with a mass audience to his traumatic end, we root for Beau on his journey of deeply traumatic sexual discovery, fatherhood and old age.

And when the motorboat that is a metaphor for life falters and finally flips Beau into the water, the public court of opinion looks on, indifferent to his fate.

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