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Beau is Afraid (2023) April 23rd, 2023

Beau is Afraid is a masterpiece depicting, as faithfully as film allows, what it must be like to live with paranoid schizophrenia. I did not enjoy watching Beau is Afraid and I never want to see it again. Expect to realistic depictions of common fears like someone holding you down and gouging your eyes out or being stalked and attacked by violent street people. Beau is Afraid is full of these nightmarish easter eggs like a fucked-up Ready Player One.

I left the theater and observed no less than two separate groups of moviegoers holding court while the only person who ‘got it’ explained Beau is Afraid to their bewildered friends. I’m a little exhausted after an hour long walk being that guy explaining the movie to my wife so, I’m not going to get into analyzing and breaking down every bit of symbolism, allegory, and metaphor in Beau is Afraid but I think I can break down the general themes.

Joaquin Phenix plays Beau as a man coping with the hallucinations and fears of his surrounding world. If you’ve ever been cautioned not to be alone with a teenage girl because if she makes a rape accusation against you no one will believe you over her, or that you should never smoke marijuana because sometimes people lace it with PCP ‘so they can have fun watching what it does to you’, or that the only two options for anyone who’s joined the military is to die horribly leaving everyone you love to mourn your tragic death OR to return home with a case of PTSD so severe your every interaction with the world will be violent… then you might get Beau is Afraid as easily as I did.

Beau is Afraid is basically the story of one man’s inability to deal with the news of his mother’s death (I believe she’s been dead since the movie began) and his paranoid delusions kick in to protect him from the emotional fallout of this catastrophic disruption. The inciting incident of his mother’s death triggers many of his insecurities and self doubts to come crashing through his safeguards and coping mechanisms, and it doesn’t help that the movie begins with Beau starting a new medication regimen. Beau is Afraid explores its titular character’s traumatic history and insecurities as if all his issues all need to be solved immediately.

The hyper anxiety in Beau is Afraid might be easily interpreted as abstract nonsense but I assure you Ari Aster is keenly aware of the horror Hereditary mental illness creates (I seem to recall he made another entire film about it once but I can’t remember the title). There’s a phenomenal animation sequence that might seem like fairy tale fantasy but, I think it was Beau’s way of dealing with his own disappointment in not achieving the classic American Dream. This is about the extent of the depth of Aster’s symbolism, for example the movie ends with Beau putting himself on a sort of morality trail where he debates himself on his own selfishness and self worth in an aquatic amphitheater before thousands of judgmental onlookers. These onlookers are us, the film audience watching passively and with minimal investment in this tragedy as if the people in it aren’t real and don’t matter. This allusion is completed when audience members slowly leave their seats as soon as the credits begin and continue until the screen goes black as the credits end. Aster is also prone to a sub-sophomoric sense of humor so don’t be surprised when you see lazy Freudian dick-and-ball imagery.

I would be wary of any review suggesting Beau is Afraid is nonsense or a deep statement on anything political or metaphysical. My experience with Beau is Afraid is limited, but it seems like people leaving my screening had difficulty understanding it. I felt like it spoke to me with the same ease as Aronofsky’s Mother. Sometimes Beau is experiencing many of the things we’re seeing, but more often than not they’re paranoid delusions brought on by his inability to cope with his surroundings and process his stress.

I found Beau is Afraid to be an exhausting exercise in frenetic overstimulation and fear. Watching Beau is Afraid was the closest I hope to ever get to experiencing Alex DeLarge’s ocular aversion therapy but administered by an even more unqualified self indulgent sadistic asshole. Beau is Afraid made notorious films I’ve seen like Saw and Saló seem like Shrek. I respect Beau is Afraid‘s achievement as a detached fart-sniffing intellectual’s psychotic fantasy but I gotta say, it was too close to home for me.

To spend as much time as they did creating a visceral paranoid delusional experience I would’ve welcomed a little relief in the end. I get that providing that relief would undermine any possible theme or moral about how our healthcare system’s failure to treat mental illness contributes to rising violent crime and self harm, but the lawmakers in charge of policy and reform aren’t watching your movie Ari, it’s just us fart-sniffers in here. You couldn’t spare those of us who survived your movie a whiff of relief? Maybe a creative solutions to our broken system? No? You can’t be bothered to do more than lazily holding up a mirror the world? Ok, well… then fuck you too.

Maybe that isn’t what Aster had in mind at all and I actually don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. I’m open to that, but the only impressions I’ve seen are either “Beau is Afraid was too weird and I don’t understand it” or “What an awful nightmare.” How much responsibility does an artist have to make their work coherent or interpretable? Is the audience to blame if your film is incomprehensible and painful to watch? Gaspar Noé probably thinks so but I don’t.

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