Joaquin Phoenix stars in the Funniest Nightmare of the year as Filmmaker Ari Aster Leaves Audiences Internally Conflicted with each Laugh.
As an “After the Show” review, this is directed primarily toward those who’ve already seen the film, or those who don’t mind spoilers.
DIRECTED BY ARI ASTER/2023
As I settled into my seat at the Alamo Drafthouse, I knew to keep my expectations at bay. Not only did I not know what to expect, I also had critics in one ear telling me this movie was a career-killer while others were touting how wholly original Ari Aster’s cinematic masterpiece was. I didn’t know what to believe but I wasn’t going to let anyone taint my brainspace going into the film. Hereditary is one of my favorite films ever – point blank period; and Midsommar would no doubt be included in ‘Tatum’s Top 20 Favorite Films’. Aster is able to touch something within me that synchronizes so well with my film tastes – I knew, undeniably, whatever this man touched was going to be, at bare minimum, artistically done and creatively entertaining.
The entire 2 hour 59 minute runtime is PACKED. I had to pee about halfway through the film and couldn’t give in because I didn’t want to miss an ounce of the action. (This worked against me in the long run because I ended up having to use the restroom during the LAST scene… urgh.) Aster made this movie an epic journey; there is no question about that. Each second was filled with laughter, disgust, or confusion and each time I reacted to a moment, I felt something.
In order to help me better express the audience reaction and summarize my thoughts, I am going to tap in another ZekeFilm contributor, Paul Hibbard, so we can volley some questions back-and-forth with one another and expand on the experiences we each had with Beau.
Alright, Paul… As we joined Beau in his journey to get to his mom’s house, what sequence of events on his adventure did you find to be your favorite?
I thought the first hour was top-notch filmmaking. Aster is playing in the surreal, and like a lot of times with surrealism, filmmakers try to expand the happenings of the plot to match the expansive ideas, but the first hour kept that expansion of thoughts while keeping the story so taut and intriguing. The phone conversations were riveting, and while watching, I was thinking that a way to divide the great directors from the average may be how much they can get out of a phone call scene. Like perhaps that’s the litmus test.
There were also little details I found so interesting, like when his therapist doesn’t write the word “guilt” down on his pad, but rather guilty.
Even when the film gets to Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan’s place, it still maintained a chamber-piece interest to me, and it wasn’t until they went into the second act and ran into the traveling theater did I think the film was starting to lose steam. Though by that, I just mean it feels a little short of a masterpiece. But still an incredible endeavor from Aster.
So if we were to break it into three acts, from his apartment and the family’s home as Act 1, the theater and woods as Act 2 and his mother’s place as Act 3, did any of the three grab you the most?
For me, the most compelling of the three acts was Act 1. My favorite sequence of the entire film was probably when Beau was being parented by Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane) while being terrorized by Toni (Kylie Rogers) and Jeeves (Denis Ménochet). This part of the film starts with a bang (quite literally) that gut-punches you into a rollercoaster of K-Pop and PTSD. In a nightmarish terror, Beau finds that his journey continues to be pushed back for reasons out of his control. All the while, Toni and Jeeves are adding roadblocks of their own by trying to get rid of Beau and his place in their home.
This sequence ends with a moment that you can’t help but feel is inherently Aster. There’s a grotesque, visceral terror that he can tap into and make me shudder like no other. While much of the movie is funny, not in a ha-ha way but more so in a what the fuck? way, this scene in particular turns on its head and makes you curl into yourself. What happens after Beau leaves the house turns into a whole other beautiful beast. I would be remiss not to mention how wonderful the traveling theatre sequence is and that I will never be able to listen to Always be my Baby in the same way ever again – meaning, all three of these ‘Acts’ are brilliant and memorable in their own distinct ways.
With all of that being said, I would like to delve into the meaning of this film. I think much of the movie and its message are self-explanatory while other scenes seem more willing to be picked apart. I want to know what you thought, Paul. How did you react when you saw the giant penis monster? What was going through your head when a Truman Show-style reveal was made near the halfway point? What did you think as the end credits were rolling? There are so many directions this answer could go… pick your favorite(s) and roll with it!
In terms of how I responded, everything was so outlandish in what was happening, that there was never a moment that necessarily rocked my world while watching, because everything was so draped in an obviousness that it wasn’t all really happening. I think it’s more a question for me of ‘what does it mean’, and that kind of becomes futile trying to put your exact finger on.
Is the reveal a manifestation of his anxiety? Does the penis monster represent his father? I think, for me, the answer to both is…I think so. Maybe?
The overall understanding of what is happening is, like you said, self-explanatory. A simple Jewish-guilt from his mother story, with Freudian undertones, and a Book of Job endurance test for Beau. I’ve even seen Aster say in interviews that the basic premise is easy to figure out. That simplicity I have seen from some critics is a detriment, as they say, “yeah yeah, we’ve seen it before.” But from as many others, I’ve seen an appreciation of the simplicity. The film may get wild, but the feelings are grounded and relatable.
The one thing that interests me the most is wondering if this whole film is a memory or a hallucination. To which I’ll throw it back to you. In both instances, you can say the same things all happen. So in a way, it’s moot. But I saw two points that could be the start or finish of his mind mistranslating everything that’s happening. At the beginning, when he takes the medication (and the hilariousness of not finding water to take with it). In that case, you could read the film as a mindfuck of a hallucination from the side effects. Or the end, when he dies. Which means right before death, which from how he died implied suicide to me, he is recounting his whole life, the mistakes he made, and the missed opportunities.
So did you take the film as a hallucination or memory for Beau? Or even neither?
I think, as you said, that much of the film isn’t actually ‘happening’. I think some of the sequences can be attributed to the world that Beau’s mom, Mona (Patti LuPone), has built for her son in that Truman Show-esque sort of way. For instance, we find out that Beau’s apartment is a property of MW which is Mona’s monopolizing company. Due to this reveal, I pieced together that the caricaturish nature of his life before leaving his apartment was all amped-up because his mother had created his life in such a way in which he’d want to run back to her for safety. Because of this, I do believe this part of the movie is ‘real’ and that everything was actually happening but in a calculated way due to Mona’s need for control.
Everything up to the traveling theatre I do believe happened – and I think a lot of the following could be perceived as a trauma-response to his guilt and feeling trapped. The midway point can be seen as that shift in narrative. When we approached the play sequence, I began to understand that this was an internal response. Beau ‘seeing’ his dad, pushed by the narrative to continue running due to a crazed shooter, being picked up by a car who happened to take him all the way to his mother’s estate, a cum-explosion killing his long-lost lover, and Jeeves ultimately being killed by a penis monster… I mean, I think it’s safe to say this portion of the film didn’t happen or was extremely exaggerated. I’m reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s individual touch by Beau and find traces of many of his films within the watch. However, the ending takes a sledgehammer and hits you over the head with the answers to questions we no longer had – my biggest qualm of the entire experience.
Ultimately, Beau is Afraid is going to divide audiences. As we write this a few weeks after its April 21st wide-release, the film seems to have made about 24% of its $35 million budget back. When we think of third releases from this new-wave of directors, Robert Eggers looks to have made his $70 million budget back for The Northman while Jordan Peele crushed his $68 million Nope budget with $171.2 million box office. With all of that in mind, I can only hope that Ari Aster’s budget doesn’t get stifled with this release and we continue to see his creative genius expressed through his distinctive films.
Tatum’s Letterboxd Rating: ⅘ stars
Paul’s Letterboxd Rating: ⅘ stars