Ari Aster’s disturbing drama about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who is afraid of everything all the time, bursts through the limits of the horror genre.
American director Ari Aster staked out a claim for being an artist of the horror genre in his first two features, Hereditary and Midsommar. With his third, called Beau Is Afraid, he’s pushed himself, and the audience, past the limits of the form. Is it a horror movie? You could call it that, but I would argue that it purposely defies our expectations of horror in order to create something quite different.
The title gives us the essence of the story. Beau, a disheveled middle-aged man with a wide-eyed stare, played by Joaquin Phoenix, lives alone in a small apartment. He is afraid of everything all the time. We, the audience, are totally confined to Beau’s point of view. What he hears, for instance, of other people outside his apartment, is a stream of muttering, crying, screaming, moaning, and arguing, punctuated with occasional gunshots. It doesn’t take long to figure out that what Beau perceives is not necessarily real—in fact, as the film goes on, we stop being able to distinguish if anything is objectively real—our suspicion that he sees and hears things that aren’t there, plus the fact that everyone seems to be plotting against him, indicates that he might be paranoid schizophrenic, yet there’s no hint of such a diagnosis in the movie.
Beau is planning to travel soon to visit his mother, on the anniversary of his father’s death (which right away tells us something is off). He packs a bag, he has plane tickets, but as he’s about to leave he goes back into the apartment because he’s forgotten something, only to find when he starts to leave again that his suitcase is missing along with the keys to his apartment. He has to call his mother to explain, and the conversation is a perfect encapsulation of guilt and anxiety. Thus begins a darkly surreal journey into the depths of madness.
Horror movies use fear as a stimulant. The audience gets pleasure from being scared, then gets a little relief, then more scares. It’s how horror films entertain us. Ari Aster seems to be saying: What if all you felt was fear? What if fear was the underlying condition of all your experience?
Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance of intense discipline, embodies a character who can only be a victim, who has no defense against any and all attacks of malice, misfortune, and abuse. The one word he says more than any other is “What?” He cannot comprehend the disastrous series of events that fill his mind. He is deceived, stabbed, hit by a speeding car. He witnesses murders and a suicide. At the center of all this is an emotionally incestuous bond with his mother, a prominent businesswoman who berates him without mercy for his failures.
The more bizarre things happen, the more we guess that he is creating his own suffering without realizing it, a mental trauma that persists because that’s all he knows. We must guess all this—nothing is spelled out.
A horror film usually wraps things up dramatically in a certain time. Aster says no, I don’t want just entertainment—instead, he’s made his movie three hours long, and I think we’re meant to feel exhausted and spiritually crushed, just like the beleaguered main character. Beau Is Afraid is a difficult film. It has bursts of maniacal humor that only emphasize the bleakness of the living nightmare. It’s a messy masterwork.