Maverick Life


‘Beau is Afraid’ with Joaquin Phoenix is a surreal odyssey into the psyche of a paranoid man

‘Beau is Afraid’ with Joaquin Phoenix is a surreal odyssey into the psyche of a paranoid man

Ari Aster’s ambitious horror comedy might not be the funniest horror you’ve ever seen, but it’s probably the darkest comedy.

In a nutshell

If you’ve seen the poster or watched the colourful trailer and pictured an uplifting fantastical adventure of transformation like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Forrest Gump, before watching Beau Is Afraid, definitely google its director. 

This is the third and biggest feature by Ari Aster, the talented horror filmmaker behind Hereditary and Midsommar, and while it’s far less a traditional horror than those two, it’s equally unsettling in a different way. 

Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau, a tragically meek and vulnerable middle-aged man suffering from paranoid delusions, whose journey to visit his mother is disrupted by myriad unfathomably awful setbacks. This may not be the funniest horror you’ve ever seen, but it’s probably the darkest comedy. Through Beau’s eyes, wide with terror, the world is a dangerous, sometimes comically scary place, and it’s left to you to decide which of the unspeakable things that happens to this poor man actually takes place. 

Beau’s journey becomes progressively less comical and more disturbing, harnessing the audience’s curiosity and challenging them to stay on this nightmarish journey. Despite its raw, visceral exploration of guilt, anxiety, ambivalence and generational trauma, any attempt to make sense of this experimental, obstinately nonsensical film would be futile. 

Where to watch it

Beau Is Afraid is available in cinemas.

What’s the vibe?

The pity and reluctant bemusement we feel at gentle Beau’s cascading misfortune is strongly reminiscent of A Serious Man by the Coen brothers, and the cerebral character development of those protagonists both escalate with a “too bad to be true” type of comedy.

But the structure of Beau Is Afraid is more fluid, taking a broader more abstract view of the story, much like BARDO, False Chronicles and A Handful of Truths, which also shares the dreamlike aesthetic of vast spaces and fantastically psychedelic cinematography that characterise David Lynch films.

A lot of the imagery and fears explored in the film are derivative of Ari Aster’s first feature, Hereditary, but the conspiratorial style of the horror is more similar to something like Get Out.

Joaquin Phoenix playing a misunderstood, mentally ill man who tugs so violently on our heartstrings that we worry he’ll hang himself with them, obviously evokes his performance in The Joker. Beau is arguably a less-complex character but the empathy we feel for him is equally aching.

A closer look

It might take a viewer 45 minutes to stop grasping to make sense of this inscrutable film, but the sooner one relinquishes the desire to understand, and simply watches, the better. A movie this obscure is inherently polarising because the haters will complain that it’s overly ambitious and nonsensical while the fans are going to love it for being … overly ambitious and nonsensical. It’s a matter of what you want out of a film. Those who like it might say that those who hated it just don’t have a sophisticated enough taste to appreciate it – it’s risky big-budget films like this one that deepen the rift between generic mainstream media and the pretentious indie fringe.

The budget for Beau Is Afraid was nearly double that of his past two films put together – about $35-million, easily taking the place of Everything Everywhere All At Once (which cost $25-million) as the most expensive A24 production yet. This might explain why its marketing deceptively suggests something much more playful and harmless than it is – because it will need to make an enormous amount at the box office to be a hit, and a three-hour blood-curdling epic about a middle-aged man with mommy issues is not an appealing elevator pitch.

Just as in Damien Chazelle’s recent film, Babylon, Aster was given enough rope to hang himself off the back of his previous films’ successes and clearly struggled to condense his creative ambitions. The intriguing tangents and visually arresting flashbacks strewn throughout the film are too numerous for most viewers, but it’s difficult to know which should have been cut because the plot (if you can call it that) is so nebulous. When a twenty-something-minute animated fairy-tale dream sequence with no effect on the rest of the story is somehow the most comprehensible slice of a film, do you cut it? Or is its inclusion cleverly avant-garde? 

Photo: A24

Photo: A24

The answer depends on how much room for interpretation you enjoy. A Freudian psychoanalyst would have a field day with the symbolism of Beau’s hallucinations and the many Easter eggs of his misadventures, but others will be frustrated that explanations aren’t provided. Someone keeps putting notes under Beau’s door telling him to stop playing music even though he isn’t – what the hell is that about?! If not knowing drives you crazy, you’re going to walk out of the theatre a bona fide nutcase. Every answer opens up two more mysteries or paradoxes, so better to let yourself be coaxed into acceptance of a lack of clarity.

Aster does allow at least one big unambiguous twist, which in hindsight is spine-chillingly foreshadowed from the very start. Knowing that a curveball is coming does nothing to put you less off-kilter. The immersive, Lynchian sound mix floats calmly above the harshness of Beau’s fearful world, barely ever hinting at how you’re supposed to feel. The emotional seesaw of humour and concern for Phoenix’s pitiful character with his permanently exasperated falsetto is a curiously addictive balancing act, and though the end of his tale is ungratifying, the tale itself is exceptionally captivating and memorable.

Photo: A24

Trigger warnings

There’s a little graphic violence and nudity, and a particularly off-putting sex scene, but these feature in a mostly comedic context. The more disturbing horror elements involve gaslighting and emotional manipulation. DM/ML

You can contact We’re Watching via [email protected]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options