Beau Is Afraid is a zany three-hour road trip through the most neurotic recesses of the male mind, and a project that writer-director Ari Aster has been carrying around with him for nearly a decade. The film went through several iterations before making it onto movie screens in its final, 180-minute form, giving Aster plenty of time to fill it with what Aster refers to as “chicken fat,” a term former MAD Magazine editor Will Elder coined to describe the jokes crammed into every page of the satirical magazine.
Some of the film’s details — an attic full of abominations; a guy crouched in the corner of Beau’s bathroom ceiling, dripping sweat onto a naked Joaquin Phoenix in the tub — feel almost like parodies of similar images in Aster’s breakout horror film, Hereditary (2018). Except that the first draft of Beau Is Afraid was written four years before Aster made that film. And Aster is famously reluctant to connect the dots between the psychologically loaded imagery in his films and his own life in interviews.
So we’ll just have to assume all the funny signs, cheeky parodies, and off-kilter references in Beau Is Afraid are all simply dumb jokes that Ari Aster put into the movie to amuse himself. And there are a lot of dumb jokes to unpack.
The city block where Beau lives is home to a soup truck, the convenience store Cheapo Depot, and a pair of peep-show parlors called Asstral Projection and Erection Injection. Erection Injection is downstairs from Beau’s apartment, so we get a better look at the front of the place, with signs advertising such carnal delights as “Knife Dick (Stab Other Man),” “Pussy Open the Bottle,” and “Pussy Inside Out.” A few scenes later, Beau sits on a fire escape with a mural behind him that reads, “Jesus Sees Your Abominations.”
Amidst the obscene graffiti on the walls of Beau’s apartment building are posters for two shows: One for a double bill of Death by Anal and Murder by Fuck, and another for a band called Clit Shitter. “Clit Shitter” is an Ari Aster deep cut: It’s the vagina-haver’s equivalent to “Tino’s Dick Fart,” a fake product for which Aster made a crude infomercial back in 2011.
Beau’s building is also papered with flyers warning residents of the presence of a brown recluse spider, one of three North American spider species with what Wikipedia calls “medically significant” venom. (Yikes!) The poster has a quote: “‘The price of greatness is responsibility’—Winston Churchill.” That has nothing to do with spiders, but it does add to the movie’s overall vibe of oppressive guilt and failure.
Early on in the film, Beau eats an “O’Loha — Hawaii and Ireland” meal from the frozen-foods division of MW, the “super-business” empire founded and run by Beau’s mom. (“MW” = Mona Wasserman.) At his apartment, Beau also watches a TV news report warning citizens of the “Birthday Boy Stab Man,” with a teaser for an upcoming segment called “Dead And Pregnant?”
When the film cuts to a closeup shot of the “recent calls” screen on Beau’s phone, we see that he really only calls three people: His mother, his therapist, and Moviefone, the once-ubiquitous phone number for movie showtimes (it’s even mentioned in an episode of Seinfeld) that shut down in 2014. The movie is set in 2021, so either Beau keeps calling the number in a pathetic attempt to connect, he makes phone calls less than once a year, or Mr. Moviefone is still gainfully employed in the Ari Aster-verse.
And although we see it on his busted computer monitor, not his phone, a screenshot of Beau’s plane ticket shows that he’s flying from “Corinna, CR”—a reference to the 1994 Whoopi Goldberg-Ray Liotta dramedy Corinna, Corinna. He’s flying to Wasserton, where his mother, Mona Wasserman, lives. (“Wasser” is German for “water,” as Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri explores in his analysis of the film’s ending.) This woman is truly inescapable.
Grace and Roger’s House
After Beau is stabbed in the side and palm (just like Jesus), he’s run over by a truck and wakes up in what’s clearly a teenage girl’s bedroom. On the walls are satirical posters for made-up movies (Professor Marvelous: Final Exam and Confessions of a Teenage Llama Queen), as well as fake K-pop bands like Only1, BF2000, Gottawakka, and Ki55, whose tagline is “we are 55 boys and we love you.”
The house belongs to Grace (Amy Ryan) and Roger (Nathan Lane), the drivers of the aforementioned soup truck, and the bedroom belongs to Toni (Kylie Rogers), Grace and Roger’s unrelentingly hostile teenage daughter. The rest of the family’s suburban home is decorated with generic “Live Laugh Love”-style signage in cursive script, and photos of their dead son, Nate, who died in an imaginary war between the U.S. and Venezuela. There’s even a puzzle with Nate’s picture on it, just to give it that extra morbid edge. (The posters in Nate’s room are all for real bands, like PUP, Owen, and Texas prog-rockers Polyphia.)
Beau watches more TV at Grace and Roger’s house, seeing the UPS guy who discovered his mom’s dead body (his face is turned from the camera, but it’s definitely Bill Hader). He also stumbles on footage of himself from surveillance cameras tuned to the defunct UHF frequency Channel 78. Grace passes Beau a napkin that reads, “stop incriminating yourself” — a hint that Mona may still be alive and watching her son, as well as another drop in the film’s overflowing bucket of paranoia.
In the flashback sequence where a young Beau goes on a cruise with his overbearing, pseudo-incestuous mother, he’s reading a book called Big Mistake! The Treehouse Gang Comes Home — a cheeky parody of a Hardy Boys book that also reflects Beau’s intense anxiety about going back to his hometown to see his mother(‘s headless corpse).
The Orphans’ Play
When Beau first walks into the woodland settlement occupied by the Orphans of the Forest, he passes a series of wooden signs nailed to trees, each of them painted with banal phrases like “know thyself” and “nothing to excess” that are all taken from the lyrics to Broadway musicals.
The play-within-the-film, known as the “Hero Beau” sequence in the film’s credits, was created by Chilean filmmakers Cristóbal León and Joaquin Cosiña. Aster is a big fan of the duo’s 2018 stop-motion animated film The Wolf House, which Aster calls a “brilliant Chilean stop-motion monstrosity that was really one of the most amazing things that I had ever seen.”
The Wolf House is a dark and psychologically fraught fairy tale inspired by the true story of a German colony in Chile infamous for the torture and murder of dissidents during the Pinochet regime, so the Ari Aster appeal is pretty self-evident. As well as working with them on Beau Is Afraid, Aster also executive produced the duo’s new stop-motion short Los Huesos (The Bones), which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 2021.
Beau’s Mom’s House
When Beau first walks up to his mom’s house, he sees a van for a catering company called Shiva Steve’s Grub for the Grieved parked out front. The caterers are packing up; the funeral is over.
Beau goes inside the house and walks down a spiral staircase surrounding a pillar decorated with photos of Beau throughout his life — including, most curiously, a screenshot from a surveillance camera, showing Beau talking on the phone with his mom at the beginning of the film. At the bottom of the stairs, Beau’s mother has set up a sort of shrine to MW’s many subsidiaries, including framed print ads for ADHD and allergy meds, frozen meals, safety razors, and pimple creams — all featuring a young Beau. MW, as it turns out, also built Beau’s apartment as part of some nightmarish, urban blight-themed housing complex, and was preparing to roll out a security company when Mona “died.” MW’s tagline? “Perfectly Safe.”
Beau also looks at a photo collage of MW employees, among them Roger and the heavily tattooed man who chased Beau into his apartment early on in the film. (RIP — the spider got him.) The camera focuses on a photo of Beau’s childhood crush Elaine, played as an adult by Parker Posey.
A few scenes later, Elaine comes back into Beau’s life in the flesh, and the two have sex (finally — Beau’s been waiting for decades) as “Always Be My Baby” by Mariah Carey plays in the background. According to Aster, the song was in the script: “There was never another option,” he told The Daily Beast. “It would not be ‘Always Be My Baby’ if there was another option, because it was expensive.” (Carey, delightfully, showed up to the premiere.)
That’s not the last of Beau’s, let’s say, unconventional musical choices: The CD he gives to his mother two years in a row for her birthday is For the Boys: Music from the Motion Picture, the soundtrack to the 1991 movie starring Bette Midler and James Caan.
More on Beau Is Afraid
- All About Ari Aster’s Mother
- Mariah Carey Watched Beau Is Afraid’s ‘Always Be My Baby’ Sex Scene on Her Phone
- Who’s Afraid of Patti LuPone?