The anxious mind has a very dark imagination. Anxiety can make us believe that the most unfathomable and catastrophic thing that can happen is also the most immediate and real thing that might happen. Anything that can go wrong, is worth worrying about going wrong. Anxiety can feel brutally physical, as our mind turns over a fight-or-flight instinct but with no one to fight and nowhere to go. Fear lumps in our dry throats. Some chest-bursting alien wants to claw its way out from inside our chests. It feels like our mind and the world it is processing move at wildly different speeds. Heart palpitating, the spins set in, and we disassociate completely from our environment. Your mind can’t hurt you. Your mind can’t hurt you. Your mind can’t –
Beau is Afraid is the dark manifestation of Ari Aster’s anxieties writ large. Make no mistake: this film is hard work. Hard work to make. Hard work to produce and distribute. Hard work for us to watch. It’s three hours of unfettered anxiety, only broken up by disparate sections of the story. It’s not the standard format of anxiety and then catharsis, instead, it flows upstream from anxiety to anxiety until its anxious conclusion. That goes for about three hours and you’d be right to think that is a long time to be stuck inside this frightening loop.
The way it starts is also how it goes the whole way through. Beau is Afraid. Just about everything has gone wrong. His therapist has prescribed new pills for his anxiety. He weaves through gun-toting street merchants, dead bodies, and gunfire, just on his walk home. As he arrives home, he’s greeted with a sign on his door, some of the apartments are infested with brown recluse spiders, be on the lookout. Peace at last. Tomorrow Beau has to go see his Mom. It’s the anniversary of his Dad’s death and he is feeling reticent to travel. He sleeps fitfully as a neighbor keeps sliding a note under his door to turn down his music, music he isn’t even playing, until they retaliate and blast their own music through their shared walls.
Beau wakes up restless. It’s time to go. He packs his stuff and goes. It’s not that easy. Beau locks his door and makes it partway down the hall before realizing he forgot his dental floss. He goes back again and gets it and when he makes it back to the hallway, the keys he left in the door are gone. Beau calls his mother with the bad news, there’s just too much going wrong and he can’t make it. It’s fine, it’s fine, she says, meaning it’s not fine. Beau takes his new medicine. Must take with water, it reads on the label. Well, the water in Beau’s apartment complex is out this morning. He looks out his window at the corner store and a menacing man stares back up at him. Beau makes a break for it anyway. Puts a phone book in the door, as he’s misplaced his keys. Makes it over to the corner store, desperately just trying to get some water. Card declined.
Outside the store window, Beau watches in astonishment, as hilariously, the whole population of people living on the street outside flood into the propped open door of his apartment building, and then close it behind them. Beau wanders back to his apartment and climbs the scaffolding, watching as these strangers ransack his apartment. He falls asleep there. Come morning, the front entry is totally busted open and he wanders back into his apartment, now in total disarray. Beau calls his mother, distraught and needing to talk to the only person in the world who may sympathize with him. A delivery driver picks up. He’s found a body. Can he identify it? It’s missing a head and crushed by a chandelier. Is he sure this is his mother’s number? Beau hangs up and tries again. It is. In total distress, Beau no longer knows how to live with himself. At least the water is back on. Beau takes a bath, and only once he’s relaxed, he looks up and sees a man suspending against the ceiling of the bathroom. He’s just hanging there, trying not to fall until a brown recluse spider crawls across his face. The man falls and they have a wrestling match until Beau can run outside, naked, is confronted by a cop, is stabbed multiple times by a serial killer on the loose called the Birthday Boy Stab Man, and is run over by a vehicle.
This is… only the first sequence of events in Beau is Afraid, in which we realize the rules of normal logic need not apply to this movie. Anything that can happen inside the imagination of a person’s anxiety can and will happen in this movie. It’s a terrifying prospect. It’s only cathartic in the way that it believes in its character’s anxiety and treats his neuroses as though they are tangible threats. It’s a whirlwind of an opening and while no movie can maintain that fever-pitched intensity, nor should one if it means to be coherent and readable as a story, it sets up the first stage of Beau’s journey into the recesses of his trauma-inflicted mind.
Most curiously, the film utilizes its anxious anarchy in a novel way. If you’ve seen Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), you may have a feeling for how Aster plays with tension. That carries over here. But in all of the moments and spaces where those films would most lean into horror, Beau is Afraid plays them for comedy. Aster works in the mode of pitch-black comedy. Almost all of it comes from some moment of relief, the way a jump scare would do, but here, we are laughing hysterically. This is an interesting design for a film that also plays within the horror rulebook. Many of its images, concepts, and general premise, are drawn clearly as horror ideas, or what a horror movie playing inside someone’s anxiety-wracked brain would feel like.
The modes of expression are also otherwise differentiated, separated into about four central acts. The story is about Beau making it back home for his mother’s funeral. Everyone is waiting on him and every moment they have to wait is just another in a long series of humiliations. There is the part in Beau’s apartment as described, a section where he’s taken in by a rich family with some larger issues than his own, an ultra-creative sequence where Beau is taken in with a troop of theatrical orphans in the woods, and then a denouement, which does not resolve the tension of the story so much as that things have already reached a feverish peak, and now must just end in some sort of assessment of how Beau has lived, and if it has all been worth it.
The best movie of the year is the long sequence in the forest, as the orphans put on a play about one man’s journey through life and the possibilities ahead of him, and the shape and form of the film wildly change. The backdrops of these sections are gorgeously designed by the animation duo Joaquin Cociña & Cristóbal León (see: 2018’s The Wolf House, one of the most interesting animated films you can watch), who flex their own surrealist-horror pedigree in really evocative stage backdrops that end up engulfing the whole frame of the movie, as we enter a psychedelically animated fever dream.
Beau is Afraid has some trouble maintaining its narrative push after this resounding climax. The last hour is spent trying to wrap up a story that is all tension and build-up and the film struggles to find a convincing way to resolve the endless series of neurotic traps it has hatched for its main character. It tries at something higher-concept and does not succeed at the same heightened level at its most brilliantly animated segment. When the film is really working, it flows from anxiety to anxiety and is as deeply funny as it is dark. Often there is also an imbalance between these sides of the films. Moments that read as just dark or just funny and then have trouble coalescing into this grandiose total vision of the thing. The complete formal success of Beau is Afraid, however, is not nearly as interesting as the film existing in this form at all, and how at its best, it’s playing with anxiety at a frantic level that few movies have ever accomplished. Everyone who believes in uncompromised filmmaking needs to see it for themselves — it would be nearly impossible to leave the theater feeling indifferent about the film.