Beau Is Afraid movie review & film summary (2023) | Roger Ebert (2024)

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Beau Is Afraid movie review & film summary (2023) | Roger Ebert (1)

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Did you ever hear the one about the boy who feared his mother? “Beau Is Afraid” tells this joke for three gobsmacking, sometimes exhausting, always beguiling hours. At the center is a fascinating performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who actualizes what it looks like for a boy to suddenly stop growing up and merely age into a graying body. Phoenix makes his mouth tiny as if he were still suckling, and his voice intensely frail. His eyes, often used to signal a primal nature, have never seen looked so soft. His character will prove to be far too innocent for this world. The story that unfolds is Beau’s nightmare and his destiny.

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The film’s writer/director is Ari Aster, who has always been a funny guy. His excellent, trauma-filled dramas “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” may be packed with the horror of relationships, but it’s the cruel joke underneath that provides their driving force–they are pitch-black comedies about the universal fear of losing free-will, of being screwed from the get-go. “Beau Is Afraid,” an enveloping fantasy laced with mommy issues, is about being doomed from birth. It's Aster’s funniest movie yet.

Beau is a quintessential Aster protagonist, barely making it in a hellish landscape that’s lovingly detailed by Aster and production designer Fiona Crombie. The downtown neighborhood where Beau lives is defined by violence and madness: People fight in the middle of the street, they threaten to jump off buildings, and dead bodies lie about. It’s a Busby Berkeley musical, with death and destruction as the choreography. Working with long-time collaborator Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster surveys this sumptuous chaos like Peter Greenaway did long dining tables in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.” Here, such tracking shots gorgeously capture a sick sad world eating itself alive in broad daylight.

This world-building for Beau is like a furious overture of the towering anxieties we’ll see later in present-time and in flashback: a lack of personal space, the threat of being unable to please others, and the impossibility of rampant bad luck. Embracing his ruthless sense of humor, Aster sucks you in with each absurd, claustrophobic development, like when an angry neighbor keeps sliding him notes to turn the volume down, even though he’s sitting in silence. It’s a punchy, rollicking first act in a laugh-to-keep-from-screaming way, andit establishes a rhythm with dread that the movie is not precious about keeping. Nothing will be as smooth from here on out; inconsistency can prove disorienting.

The most daunting moments in Beau’s life are his phone calls from his mother, Mona Wassermann, her initials stamped on a fancy logo that can be seen on nearly every item in his dilapidated apartment. Played over the phone with exquisite venom by Patti LuPone, the mega-successful Mona creates immense, unsettling tension by making Beau feel even smaller. Aster’s gutting dialogue shines (“I trust you’ll do the right thing,” says Mom). The guilt, shame, and humiliation, it’s all packed into a phone call after he accidentally misses his flight to see her (it’s a long story). He does not have free will but a lived-in need not to disappoint his mother. Phoenix’s best moments in this movie are his long close-ups when he’s on the phone, struggling to keep everything together, especially when he later hears some awful news about his mother.

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“Beau Is Afraid” is told in chapters of various length and tone, in which Beau experiences a fluctuating sense of security. After a meltdown that has him screaming and running naked in the streets, Beau finds himself severely injured and under the care of two parents in the suburbs (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan), who cover their own pain with just enough smiles as they care for him and feed him pills. Beau needs to go see his mother, and they’ll help him do that tomorrow. Beau has become a type of replacement son for their departed soldier boy Nathan and finds a new enemy in Toni (Kylie Rogers), who is pissed about this weird guy sleeping in her rainbow-colored bedroom. Everyone brings fascinating darkness to the smiling horror of this sequence, but Rogers is a vivid glitch in the chapter’s creepy simulation of a nuclear family. She barrels in and out of each scene, a great force of nature (and there are many of them in this movie) that makes Beau’s odyssey even more bewildering.

Midway through the film, “Beau Is Afraid” makes Phoenix’s character sit down so that it can float into a stop-motion sequence, with striking animation directed by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña (“The Wolf House”). It’s a movie-within-a-movie that has “Beau Is Afraid” touching upon sentimental, hallucinatory, poetic pieces of its complicated headspace and complements its other moments of uncanniness. It also adds to the movie’s severely irregular rhythms (like the famous lewd joke “The Aristocrats,” “Beau Is Afraid” prefers shapeless tangents for its full horrific effect, which is at times obtuse, and sometimes distancing). The sequence is rounded off by an essential metaphor that becomes important to the rich, pained nature of the movie, of art becoming so lifelike you don’t even realize how much of you is in it.

“Beau Is Afraid” jumps back in time to tell us more about young Beau (Armen Nahapetian), which includes a memory on a cruise ship with a young girl who makes his mother feel threatened. The scenes are visually striking, for their artificial sets and how Nahapetian looks like a de-aged Phoenix, but it also reveals a shortcoming to Aster’s expanding maximalist vision. He cannot convey tenderness in a way that feels sincere enough, and some heavy-handed developmentshere hollow out what is meant to be a heartfelt tragedy.

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Zoe Lister-Jones plays Mona in these scenes, and what a colossal performance it is. In depicting Mona’s control and need, Lister-Jones pulls back the curtain on what has made such a monster in Beau’s mind while helping us understand Beau. She has one sequence where red light bathes her face as she lies in darkness with her son, telling him a past memory that will permanently screw Beau up. It is a wholly hypnotic monologue, thanks in part to the space and alarming gentleness with which Lister-Jones gives us each traumatizing revelation, sentence by sentence.

The film’s third act, its specific events not spoiled here, has “Beau Is Afraid” taking its full form as an exploitation film adapted from a therapist’s notepad. It’s full-on Grand Guignol emotional and psychological trauma, with moments of terror, jaw-dropping cartoonish absurdity, and an uneasy blend of past and present accompanied by a perfectly chosen Mariah Carey song. Aster packs in more characters, revelations, and more explosions of the psychological variety. But for all of the power within this feverish work, including its fire-and-brimstone performances, it creates a weariness that does not work in Aster’s favor. The sequence is admirable visually–its disquieting modern architecture setting looms over its characters, and there are laugh-out-loud inserted images to level the tone. But like the intense strings of Bobby Krlic’s score, its pressing atonal nature at such a high volume becomes numbing; so too does the centerpiece dialogue that makes for an Oedipal screed and the twists that vergeon self-parody. In its grand statement, “Beau Is Afraid” risks canceling out itsintricate but chaotic arrangement into a simple scream.

The film includes many surprising performances that blossom in the movie’s off-kilter environs, from the likes of Parker Posey, Denis Ménochet, and Stephen McKinley Henderson. But the most important figure in “Beau Is Afraid” is Aster, who is openly wrestling with his work here. No rule says one needs a certain amount of features before reckoning with their authorship. “Beau Is Afraid” is, appropriately, like a fever dream through the museum of Aster's previous creations and fascinations—it’s not just the 2011 original short film “Beau,” but the premise of his short “Munchausen,” the hellish city landscape of “C’est la Vie” (starring Bradley Fisher, the man playing the role here of “Birthday Boy Stab Man”) and Aster’s fixation with head trauma, communes, etc. Part of the movie becomes like a retread of what built “Hereditary,” which is rendered all the more intensely personal by this film’s jarring use of first-person point-of-view shots (a terrified boy nodding to his mother) and its bookending scenes. The first scene of “Beau Is Afraid” is what this movie’s personal nature looks like on the outside. The final scene shows us what it feels like for it all to be entertainment.

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This is all, of course, based on my first viewing of the movie. Any admirer of “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” knows those movies are better understood with multiple viewings and a closer look at the mechanics each time. Part of Aster’s extraordinary skill as an entertainer, when revealing theseplots about horrific relationships, is in playing with how much an audience gets on their first viewing, as opposed to their second or third. I’m curious, most of all, how the emotions within “Beau Is Afraid” will show more intricacy, or collapse under their weight, once all three hours of itfeels more familiar. But like Paul Thomas Anderson's own third film "Magnolia" (also three hours),the ambition is the point: it'sapparent even more how Aster has never made a feature or short that is lazy or overly assured of itself—he never will. After the dizzying but unforgettable experience of “Beau Is Afraid,” we now know who to thank for that.

Available in select theaters on April 14th and nationwide onApril 21st.

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Film Credits

Beau Is Afraid movie review & film summary (2023) | Roger Ebert (9)

Beau Is Afraid (2023)

Rated Rfor strong violent content, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language.

179 minutes

Cast

Joaquin Phoenixas Beau Wassermann

Patti Luponeas Mona Wassermann

Amy Ryanas Grace

Nathan Laneas Roger

Kylie Rogersas Toni

Parker Poseyas Elaine Bray

Zoe Lister-Jonesas Young Mona

Armen Nahapetianas Teen Beau

Julia Antonellias Teen Elaine

Stephen McKinley Hendersonas Beau's Therapist

Richard Kindas Dr. Cohen

Hayley Squiresas Penelope

Bradley Fisheras Birthday Boy Stab Man

Denis Ménochetas Jeeves

Director

  • Ari Aster

Writer

  • Ari Aster

Cinematographer

  • Pawel Pogorzelski

Editor

  • Lucian Johnston

Composer

  • Bobby Krlic

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Beau Is Afraid movie review & film summary (2023) | Roger Ebert (2024)

FAQs

Beau Is Afraid movie review & film summary (2023) | Roger Ebert? ›

Reviewing for RogerEbert.com, Nick Allen gave the film three and a half out of four stars, calling it "gobsmacking, sometimes exhausting, always beguiling," and wrote that it was Aster's "funniest movie yet." He praised Phoenix's performance as "fascinating," and concluded that "the ambition is the point." Mark ...

What is Beau Is Afraid summary? ›

Is the movie Beau Is Afraid any good? ›

Fresh score. Aster continuously assaults your patience into something that never once materializes into anything tangible but is so riotously entertaining and absurd that you can't help but love it. Fresh score. Our repressed fears and failure to confront our own demons will eventually find a way to reveal themselves.

What is the movie Bull is Afraid about? ›

It's hard to review or summarize, but essentially it's a journey into Beau's subconscious. Fear of sex, mommy issues, shut down emotions, and unresolved trauma. I sometimes gauge a movie based on how many times I think about it after I've seen it. For this one, I've been thinking about it all day.

What short film is Beau Is Afraid based on? ›

Now as of the short films, obviously the film is adapting the short Beau, however each time I rewatch I get more and more elements from Ari's other shorts. I will make a short list here: Jeeves starring at Beau from outside of a glass wall, like people do in the short 'Basically'

What happened to Roger Ebert's jaw? ›

In the early 2000s, Ebert was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands. He required treatment that included removing a section of his lower jaw in 2006, leaving him severely disfigured and unable to speak or eat normally.

What mental illness does Beau have in Beau is Afraid? ›

Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau, a man who suffers from extreme anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His PTSD stems from a long-suppressed childhood memory, which has become a re-occurring nightmare.

Is Beau is Afraid disturbing? ›

Parents need to know that Beau Is Afraid is an epic, experimental, surreal odyssey about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) facing his fears. Set in a violent hellscape, the movie includes death, dead bodies, stabbing, guns and shooting, threats, gory wounds, blood, eye-gouging, attacks, characters being hit with blunt…

Why did Beau Is Afraid flop? ›

Why did 'Beau' flop? Mixed reviews, an unenthusiastic moviegoing audience and that 3-hour runtime surely didn't help. The big miracle here is that Aster got his existential and plotless 180-minute mommy-issues movie made, and good for him.

Is Beau Is Afraid funny? ›

Yet Beau is Afraid, his third and most gloriously id-escaped film to date, flips the ratio of Aster's previous work to revelatory effect: it's a big, brash and often sensationally funny black comedy, inkily and rather poetically punctuated by the horror of the human condition.

Does anyone like Beau Is Afraid? ›

Do i absolutely love it and think it's hilarious? Yes. IN A NUTSHELL: The story is about Beau, who tries to overcome fear and anxiety in order to return home after the sudden death of his mother. The film was written and directed by the extremely creative Ari Aster.

What is the moral of Beau Is Afraid? ›

In conclusion, Beau is Afraid is a thought-provoking movie that portrays Beau's relentless injuries as a physical representation of losing someone, particularly a parent, and a metaphor for what life is like until we die.

Why did the girl drink paint in Beau Is Afraid? ›

On the day of Beau's release, Toni, who has grown to resent Beau for seemingly replacing her deceased brother, attempts to force him to drink a can of paint, before committing suicide by doing it herself.

What medication does Beau take in Beau Is Afraid? ›

His therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) prescribes Beau a fictional drug called Zypnotycril, but the potential side effects of taking it without water only lead to greater existential dread.

What is the plot of Beau is Afraid? ›

A three-hour-long surrealist black comedy, Beau Is Afraid follows the titular Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), a deeply paranoid and anxiety-ridden middle-aged man, on an epic odyssey to get home to his overbearing mother, Mona (Patti LuPone, played in flashbacks by Zoe Lister-Jones).

What happens at the end of Beau is Afraid? ›

After Mona revealed this and berated Beau some more, he snapped and strangled her. Beau stopped himself from killing her at the last second, then ran out of the house in fear and shame. Beau then made his way to the nearby beach, where he took a boat and rode it for miles and miles until he wound up in a cave.

Is Beau is Afraid a good movie? ›

It's weird, visually stunning, and Phoenix's lead performance is stellar. Other than those aspects though, I was underwhelmed by the story. Still, if you're a film buff who likes to watch all movies, I recommend it, but to any casual viewer, I would say stay far, far away, it's probably not for you.

What were Roger Ebert's final words? ›

Sometime ago, I heard that Roger Ebert's wife, Chaz, talked about Roger's last words. He died of cancer in 2013. “Life is but a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What was the last movie Roger Ebert watched? ›

Terrence Malick's To the Wonder was Ebert's last review and showcased the director's iconic style and departure from his previous period pieces. Ebert defended Malick's filmmaking choices and believed that not every film needed to explain everything, highlighting the film's ambitious portrayal of spiritual longing.

Did Roger Ebert have any children? ›

Personal life. Ebert was married to Chaz Hammelsmith from July 18, 1992 until his death in 2013. They had no children.

What was the ending of Beau is Afraid? ›

Beau gets into a boat and sees Mona and Dr. Cohen (Richard Kind) prosecuting him. He has been put on trial because Mona doesn't believe that he is the child that she has wanted. The engine of the boat explodes and Beau dies.

Why did Beau is Afraid flop? ›

Why did 'Beau' flop? Mixed reviews, an unenthusiastic moviegoing audience and that 3-hour runtime surely didn't help. The big miracle here is that Aster got his existential and plotless 180-minute mommy-issues movie made, and good for him.

What drug is prescribed to Beau is Afraid? ›

At the beginning of Ari Aster's new film Beau Is Afraid, our hero, Beau Wasserman, walks down the sidewalk, fidgeting with a bottle of a “cool new drug” called Zypnotycril.

Why did Beau throw up in Beau is Afraid? ›

Beau then sees that a woman he once knew, Elaine Bray (Parker Posey), worked for Mona, and it causes him to vomit on the laptop, which Toni sees.

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