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Beau is Afraid review (2023) – not quite an Aster disaster

Ari Aster borrows heavily from Charlie Kaufman's playbook with mixed results, but the strong cast and production design save Beau is Afraid from total disaster.

Beau is Afraid

Our Verdict

There are two main positives here - the cast filled with wonderful supporting actors, and the production design - particularly in the fabulous forest-set theatrical sequence. However, Aster is not as shocking, or funny, or thought-provoking as he seems to think he is.

For Ari Aster’s third A24 movie, he’s left behind the anxiety-inducing dread of horror movies Hereditary and Midsommar and instead taken a giant gulp from whatever kool-aid Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze have been drinking all these years. But fear not, Aster is still determined to put his protagonist through the wringer and ensure a thoroughly feel-bad time in his new existential crisis movie – Beau is Afraid.

The first thing you should know is that Beau is Afraid is very, very, very long. And it’s divided into four fairly distinct sequences – or episodes that could make up a short TV series, for example. The first section is by far the worst, with Aster seeming to have only point to make, which is “aren’t poor people funny?” Joaquin Phoenix’s Beau lives in a run-down apartment above a lap-dancing club and the street outside his window is filled with homeless people, many of whom are violent due to mental illness and/or substance addiction.

Beau is paranoid about his apartment being invaded by these “unwashed masses” and then, that’s exactly what happens, due to his front door keys being stolen. Beau is trying to visit his rich and powerful mother, but is delayed due to this door issue, then he gets word that she’s been killed by a chandelier falling on her head.

The second section is better than the first, with the introduction of Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan as a couple who run Beau over in their Winnebago, and then hold him hostage in their daughter’s bedroom while he recuperates. The couple have lost their son in a war in Caracas, and his comrade (a veteran with PTSD) lives in a mobile home on their driveway. Again, this is all played for comedy movie laughs by Aster.

Beau is Afraid

The best thing about this section is probably Kylie Rogers as the rebellious teen daughter Toni, who chomps and chews on the vast quantities of prescription meds that her surgeon father keeps around the house, as if they’re candy. There is some suggestion that Beau will be kept by the family to fulfil the void left by their deceased son/brother – but all Beau cares about is making it to his mother’s house so she can be buried quickly, according to Jewish tradition.

Mother issues loom large over the whole of Beau is Afraid, with constant flashbacks to his childhood, where Zoe Lister Jones plays his mother when younger. The flashbacks, including an extended sequence with a teen Beau (played eerily well by Armen Nahapetian) and his holiday romance Elaine are good and lean into the surreal quirkiness that permeates the whole film.

Beau is Afraid

Speaking of which, by far the strongest section is the third act – when Beau manages to escape into the woods and meets a mysterious pregnant woman played by the brilliant Hayley Squires (known for the body horror movies In Fabric and In the Earth). Beau starts to watch – and then becomes a part of – a play in which a man finds a happy life living off the land, with a wife and three sons. A storm separates him from his family and he spends 40 years wandering the earth, trying to find them.

The theatricality of this sequence, with incredible production design, elevates this part from the rest of the extremely long, and frequently insufferable, film. The simplicity of the storytelling and boiling Aster’s themes down into a straightforward parable really works. Unfortunately, this is the shortest section – or at least feels like it goes by the fastest.

Soon, Aster is back to being determined to try to shock the audience with gross imagery and his ‘twisted’ morality as much as possible, but none of it is as provocative or clever as he seems to think. While the final act is mostly bad, it does contain Parker Posey and Patti LuPone (the latter of whom spends some significant time expertly monologuing) – so it’s hard to outright hate it.

This sums up most of Aster’s work. He has been lucky enough to be able to populate his movies with some of the best actors working today, so even if they are not to your taste – there is still something to be admired. In the case of Beau, Aster seems to have gone out of his way to select Broadway actors – such as Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nathan Lane and Patti LuPone, who we’ve seen in some of the best musicals and plays – and that really works here.

Beau is Afraid

The supporting cast (who are mostly comedy players) all play well off Phoenix – who is having an extended nervous breakdown, as if he’s in a high-stakes, anxiety-drenched thriller movie for the entire runtime. And those with theatrical experience can deliver the bizarre dialogue with aplomb.

The other area in which Aster excels is in creating strong settings (such as the Swedish commune in Midsommar) and utilising brilliant production design. In the case of Beau is Afraid, Fiona Crombie (an Oscar nominee for The Favourite) is behind that fabulous theatrical journey that Beau goes on, as well as his mother’s modernist house – which makes for an interesting location for the finale.

Unfortunately, it’s Aster’s writing which is his weakest element, and it’s a fundamental one. He is determined to be as outrageous as possible for laughs, while also trying to be philosophical and thought-provoking – when his films just aren’t as shocking or as deep as he wants them to be.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Yes, Aster pushing himself into a far more surreal and abstract space here is to be welcomed, but we’ve seen a similar tone and artist’s playground in I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) or Synecdoche, New York (2008). And we’ve seen the tone and aesthetic of Beau is Afraid executed much, much better elsewhere.

Kaufman’s work is multi-layered, and teems with literary and artistic references that are cleverly interwoven into his work, and he truly experiments with form – challenging what a film can be. Aster is clearly dipping his toe in Kaufman’s wheelhouse with Beau is Afraid, but his smug writing (that seems to want to get one-up on his audience) is always going to hold him back from true creative freedom.