dir: Ari Aster
You may hear such a title and wonder if the Beau the title refers to is just generally afraid, or whether he’s afraid because of specific things.
Let me just help you out a tad by pointing out that Beau, or perhaps director Ari Aster, are both afraid of a lot of things.
It is really hard to talk about this movie, this long arse movie. It’s exactly 2 hours and 59 minutes long, including credits. You might wonder why it’s not easier to say it’s 3 hours long. But you see making the length exactly 2 hours and 59 minutes long is just another way for Aster to fuck with the audience.
The Beau of the title, Beau Wasserman, is played by Joaquin Phoenix. He is paunchy, middle-aged, balding, and fearful. He is afraid of practically everything, but what he is most afraid of is disappointing his mother. This is 3 hours (sorry, 2h59m) of a film saying “The main character is deeply fucked up because his mum is a monster”.
The audience tolerance for this will vary wildly. This is not the extreme, terrifying horror of Hereditary, where family is a curse beyond your control, or the sly take on Wicker Man-style folk horror that was Midsommar.
No, this is…something else.
Beau lives in the kind of awful New York apartment that you imagine Travis Bickle lived in before shooting everyone at the end of Taxi Driver. Awful, and tiny, in a terrible area where people are screaming constantly, there are corpses in the street and someone called the Birthday Boy Stabber runs around naked stabbing people, and the cops don’t seem to want to stop him.
Beau is about to travel by plane to visit his mother. It’s the anniversary of his father’s death, a man who died before Beau was born, or so he has been told. Beau discusses all of this with his therapist, who asks him if he has any trepidation about seeing his mother, or whether he just wants her to die.
Beau thinks this is an odd question, because the audience thinks so too, but the wise old therapist assures him it’s perfectly normal for two things to be true – that he might love his mother but also want her to shuffle off this mortal coil.
It’s not clear how long Beau has been seeing this therapist, but it’s clear that he’s been talking about his mother for decades.
As Beau returns to his apartment building, he makes eye contact with an entirely tattooed man who ferociously runs at Beau as Beau tries to get into his front door.
We start to wonder how any of this can be real. And what we never get is any evidence that it’s not.
The more surreal, the more insane, the more aggravating everything becomes, the more obstinate in the lack of a reveal. When, after a terrible night’s sleep Beau readies to leave his apartment and catch his flight, he puts his keys in the door and his luggage just outside his apartment. A few seconds later the keys and luggage have disappeared.
It would be anyone’s worst nightmare, but especially if someone was paranoid about people being able to easily gain access to his apartment. But what does it mean?
The keys and bags are gone, it’s not even about tracking them down. Beau can’t leave the apartment freely, even when he’s taken some pills which he has been assured absolutely have to be taken with water (of course the water in his building is off for some reason). So when he makes a mad dash to the corner bodega to get a bottle of water, all of the crazy people on the street, let’s say about thirty people, all know somehow that there is an apartment nearby that the can now get into unhindered.
So they all make their way to Beau’s apartment, some of them maintaining eye contact with him as they do so.
It’s gone from “worst imagined fear” to worst possible reality. And yet we, as the audience, know that this can’t be true, none of this could really be happening.
And yet it is. He can’t get to see his mother, he can’t book another flight because his credit cards are being declined, and Mother Dearest can’t accept his explanations over the phone, convinced that Beau is lying, trying to avoid spending time with dear old Ma.
What I’m describing is basically just a long beginning into what becomes an incredibly unlikely and frankly bonkers saga for Beau to get home to his mother, who is very disappointed in him, don’t you know, and has been his entire life. Along this journey we come to learn far more details than we ever could have wanted to know as to why Beau is a pathetic middle-aged baby whose development, sexual or otherwise, was very much arrested by his mother’s smothering ‘love’ and her cruel, crippling manipulations.
But the staggering problem is that it’s not all in the past – it’s also very much in his present.
After Beau hears that his mother has died in a decapitating accident, he is given the strong impression that he has to get to her place immediately to allow the funeral to take place.
What happens is that Beau takes a bath, but a strange guy who was previously saying “help me!” to Beau whenever he was entering or exiting his building, is for some reason perched above Beau’s bath. He falls onto Beau, who is obviously naked, they struggle, and a terrified Beau runs naked into the street only to be threatened by a cop, threatened by the Birthday Boy Stabber, and then hit by a car.
Let’s just call that the first introductory hour. The next hour involves Beau being taken captive by a lovely couple (Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane) who do all sorts of bonkers shit, which, I think, a lot of which is meant to be funny. Some of it kinda is, some of it is disturbing, and some of it is plotted out like a demented game of mousetrap. Summarising it would prove pointless, I think, because so much happens but it’s quite difficult to parse as to how it all hangs together.
And I guess it does, kinda, but probably only in Beau’s mind. Interspersed with the insane goings-on are flashbacks to Beau’s childhood, with reoccurring themes and motifs – a cruise he took with his mum where he met a young girl his age, who would be the only love of his life, who asked him to wait for her, and apparently he’s been doing so for forty years.
But there’s also the ongoing terror of baths and taking baths, or bodies of water, and dead people in bodies of water, and an attic in which someone was lead or someone was trapped. Central to this second hour is also the story Beau’s mum tells him of exactly how and why the men in his family die – they have sex for the first time, impregnate a woman, and then die, like some kind of now superfluous insect.
Beau has believed this story and carried it with him through life. Before he leaves the deranged couple’s house, the most important aspect is that he gets to observe himself being observed, as in, through a television, he sees that not only is he being surveilled, but that he can also go to an earlier part of the movie we’re watching, and eventually he jumps forward to a section in the third part of the movie, well before it’s happened.
But first. But first there’s an extended sequence in a forest with a troupe of travelling players that put on a play, which Beau can’t differentiate himself from, so he essentially becomes the main character, playing out an entire other story, as in, a story completely different from the one we’re watching, with tales of having a family, learning a trade, ending up in a foreign land, travelling like the exiles of old, only to end up where he wanted, with his family, with the boys he longed to see again, after all those years, only to have it all disappear in a second, when he realises that if he believed his mother, none of this could have happened.
And that’s before a maniac turns up with a machine gun and starts shooting people.
I wish I was making that bit up.
The third act / hour involves Beau getting to his mother’s, reconciling himself with the mistakes of his past, achieving some kind of catharsis, some measure of peace to help with his grief, and the hope that now he can move on with a clean slate.
Does it fuck…
No, it’s nothing like that. What happens in the last section, other than Beau finally getting laid, is every paranoid schizophrenic’s greatest fear, greatest revelation, ultimate wish. Everyone, especially his disappointed mother (the great Pattie LuPone), is out to get him. She has and still is orchestrating everything that happens in his life. She has kept the long list of every time he’s disappointed her, or let her down, or rejected her love, or ever said anything disparaging about her.
Like he’s always dreaded, she has heard every session he’s had with his therapist where he’s blamed her for anything that’s gone wrong in his life.
And she’s especially disappointed about the time when he gave her the same Bette Midler CD two years in a row as a present.
And now she wants her revenge on her ungrateful spawn.
So she’s also going to show him what’s in the attic.
What is in the attic? I’m not going to spoil it, but fucking hell, is it beyond dumb.
I have read a bunch of reviews that say maybe this plays best as an incredibly dark comedy, but I can’t say I laughed at any point, just that there were points where I thought the director was trying to be clever, and I thought “oh, he thinks this bit is funny.” The only person I can really imagine pissing themselves laughing at this flick is Sigmund Freud.
At the sight of every pair of enlarged testicles, or phallic imagery / terror of penetration, wounds like vaginas, tunnels like birth canals, water scenes equated to birth or the womb, and freaky shit happening to Beau, I can imagine Freud chortling into his beard, puffing on his cigar, and deciding to write another 1000 pages about how mothers make gay men gay, and how everyone except Freud is gay, also completely missing the point of the movie.
What is the point of the movie? I have no fucking idea. This flick ends without affording the ‘hero’ on this journey any of the freedom or victory that one asks for or expects. It is anti-cathartic, because the hatred of the demonic mother makes her power absolute, and there can be no escape. And all the flick does is prove that Beau was right to be afraid of everything, especially his mother, because they were always going to get him in the end.
If that “message” appeals to you, then, well, have I got a bonkers movie to add to your collection.
It’s well filmed, I guess well-acted. If you’re a fan of surrealist cinema (you know, movies that don’t make any sense, let alone logical sense), then maybe this might appeal. I hesitate to mention the works of David Lynch, because this is nothing like that in terms of mood or realisation.
It’s also not a million miles away from late (less successful) Charlie Kaufman stuff, especially Synecdoche, New York, or when Richard Kelly spent all the goodwill created by Donnie Darko in order to make Southland Tales, a flick which only the nichest of film nerds could like.
I “like” that films like this exist, especially when most other flicks are so formulaic that you know everything that happens in them as they’re happening, but it doesn’t always result in an enjoyable experience. I “enjoyed” watching this bonkers flick, but, goddamn, I would never recommend it to anyone.
7 times I don’t pretend to understand everything that’s going on, but I would definitely avoid hanging out with Ari Aster out of 10
“Maybe this is all a big misunderstanding.” – would that it were so simple - Beau is Afraid