May 5, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Sophia Lisco

The highly anticipated feature film marks the third (and perhaps final?) installment of Ari Aster’s A24 horror trilogy. Known for his unflinching psychological storytelling and gruesome visual imagery, Aster, again, defies expectations with “Beau is Afraid.” The “Midsommar” director likely drew from his own anxieties to delve into a psyche of a disturbed, fearful man who might instill a sense of unwelcome familiarity to theatergoers.

I’ve been following “Beau is Afraid” since before it was even officially called “Beau is Afraid,” and I still didn’t know what to expect. Originally titled “Disappointment Blvd,” the film launched a very effective promotional campaign in January of this year. At the time, very few details about the plot were released, which made A24’s creation of MW Industries in connection with Aster’s new film extremely enticing.

Since signing up for the email list as an official MW Ambassador, I’ve been receiving their marketing emails for months. These emails would advertise fictional products (featuring Armen Nahapetian of the film’s cast), invite me to add them on LinkedIn, or attend an “employee enrichment seminar,” where I would be then directed to purchase tickets to “Beau is Afraid.” They had me hooked.

When I finally saw “Beau is Afraid” last week, I learned that MW Industries is owned by Mona Wassermann (Patti LuPone), the mother of the titular character played by Joaquin Phoenix. The film follows Beau as he embarks on a hero’s journey to visit her, which turns into a nightmare quest as he encounters his deepest fears. All of his anxieties are amplified by the seemingly surreal world that he inhabits, which functions as a worst-case-scenario dreamland.

The film can easily be divided into thirds. The first 40-ish minutes are spent establishing Beau’s world and character – viewers quickly pick up that he is a timid man in a scary world. His apartment is surrounded by depraved street-dwellers, his building is infested with poisonous spiders, his water has been shut off, and now his key has been stolen from his front door. He is forced into the world, things go terribly wrong, and he winds up living with a grieving couple (Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane) and their teenage daughter (Kylie Rogers).

Thus begins the second act. Without giving too much away, things go wrong here, too, and Beau is again launched into the big, scary world.

The final act is the most surreal, and the ending doesn’t provide much clarity. If there is an intended message or takeaway, Aster sure makes us work for it.

The entire film is tinted by the themes of anxiety and fear, yet the broader theme of motherhood and attachment is given more attention. Beau’s relationship with his mother is obviously fraught from the start and is further illuminated through his flashbacks and recurring dreams. His sex life (or lack thereof) is tied to his mother and her teachings in a very disturbing way – it’s all very Oedipal. Beau’s therapy sessions also contribute to the psychoanalytic feel of the film (that and the giant penis monster we see in act three). Aster has explored the intricacies and taboos of family life in several of his short films, and it is this theme that is perhaps what makes “Beau is Afraid” so scary.

Aster has jokingly called the film a “Jewish Lord of the Rings, but he’s just going to his mom’s house.” In perhaps the best description of the film I’ve seen, Aster captures the epic-ness and humorous elements that coexist within the horrific world he created. There were parts that made me cover my eyes, then laugh out loud (and vice versa).

Aster has a sort of tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that we see throughout the film – Beau goes through so much, putting us through all of his emotional labor, that Aster’s gags leave people laughing in disbelief. Critics have tried to insult his movies, believing that they are unintentionally funny, but Aster has assured that his movies are funny while also being terrifying.

“Beau is Afraid” keeps the elements of humor and gore (especially head trauma) that we encountered in “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” but stops there. Aster knew that his new film would shock and divide audiences, and that it would be a creative risk for A24. It’s epic, baffling, a little mind-blowing, and definitely not for everyone.

If, however, you are willing to walk into the theater with an open mind and leave slightly confused three hours later, “Beau is Afraid” will thoroughly entertain you. Isn’t that what moviegoing is all about, anyway?

“Beau is Afraid” is in theaters now.

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