This piece was originally published in April. We are recirculating it now that Beau Is Afraid is available on digital. Spoilers ahead for the plot and ending of Beau Is Afraid.
Beau and his many fears have been with Ari Aster for more than a decade. The same year the future A24 darling graduated from the AFI Conservatory, he made the short film Beau (2011), which had a series of subtitles reading, “Cannot—Will Not—Should Not—Sleep.” Clocking in at a crisp 6 minutes and 22 seconds, the short was based on a simple, anxiety-inducing premise: What if someone you didn’t know had the keys to your apartment?
Beau was written in a hurry. Aster recently told Collider that the script was a “slapped-together thing,” created after he realized he could use the empty shell of his grad-school apartment as a set for a few days before moving out. He uploaded the short to his Vimeo account, where it sat mostly unnoticed for several years. (That video and any mirrored versions that popped up on YouTube after Aster became famous have since vanished from everywhere save the Internet Archive. One now-defunct YouTube upload reads, “This video contains content from A24 Vobile, which has blocked it on copyright grounds.”) But the name Beau stuck with him, and the short became the seed for a screenplay called Beau Is Afraid.
The first draft of Beau Is Afraid was completed in 2014, long before Aster’s debut feature, Hereditary. In an interview with GQ, Aster called his pivot to horror “a cynical decision that ended up producing a pretty personal film” — he figured it would be easier to get funding for that than for a crazed Freudian comedy stuffed with dick jokes. (The strategy paid off: Hereditary made $82 million at the worldwide box office on a $10 million budget.) His next film, Midsommar, laced in more of the uncomfortable “Am I supposed to be laughing right now?” humor of his early work. And that sensibility comes back full bore in Beau Is Afraid.
Aster’s knack for manipulating horrific situations to comedic effect also comes through in the Beau short. Its version of the character lives in a run-down duplex with only a mattress on a floor, bare walls, and piles of unpacked moving boxes. There are signs that he’s an anxious person: We see shelves of pill bottles and a nightlight he grabs and throws into a suitcase he packs in the opening scene. Just as Beau’s getting ready to leave, he realizes he forgot his dental floss and runs back upstairs, leaving the front door hanging open behind him. When he returns, both his keys and his suitcase are gone.
Beau is confused — and then scared when, a few moments later, a man in a puffer jacket (played by Aster himself) walks by Beau’s door carrying a bag of trash and spits out a hostile, “You’re fucked, pal!” We learn Beau was on his way to the airport to visit his mother when the incident happened. He would like to come to visit, he tells her over the phone, but he can’t lock his apartment without his keys, and he’s afraid to leave the place unlocked. Beau tries to sleep but is kept awake all night by the sound of his neighbors fighting and a possumlike creature that slips in and out of his sliding patio door.
By the end of the film, Beau is screaming, the man who broke into his house is bleeding, and an enigmatic, seemingly omnipotent creature called Kolgaan, Collector of Keys — revealed here as a pair of furry hands smoking a cigar over a pile of stolen keys — has triumphed. It’s a weird and funny short, taking a fear common to city dwellers (namely, the intrusion of outside chaos into our personal spaces) and turning it into fodder for bizarre comedy. Sadly, Kolgaan doesn’t make it into Beau Is Afraid, but the first half of the short, right up until the possum enters the narrative, appears in the feature almost verbatim.
The role of Beau was originated by Billy Mayo, a character actor who starred in Aster’s AFI thesis project, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. (It features the most twisted family dynamic in all of Aster’s work, which is saying a lot: A mother turns a blind eye to her son’s sexual abuse of his father.) A 2014 feature-length draft of Beau Is Afraid specifies on its first page that Beau is Black, and Aster has said in interviews that he probably would have cast Mayo as the lead if he had gotten to make Beau Is Afraid as his first feature. (Mayo died in 2019 at the age of 51.) Looking at the character through this lens does change the context of certain scenes: A cop looking at a Black man and immediately pulling his gun plays differently than that cop doing the same thing to a white guy, in this case, the eventual Beau Is Afraid star, Joaquin Phoenix.
The Freudian mommy issues that dominate the 2023 version are subtle in the short and much more obvious in the 2014 draft of Beau Is Afraid, which Aster reworked into its final form in his East Village apartment during the early days of COVID-19. In the original script, Beau finds his keys on the counter at his mother’s house in the last pages, revealing Beau’s journey as a trap that Loretta Wilmington (renamed Mona Wasserman in the final film) has laid for her son. One aspect of this test was jettisoned from the final film for good reason: In the 2014 script, Beau’s mom’s attorney tells him on the phone that he missed his mother’s funeral and not to bother coming home. In the 2023 version, the lawyer says they’re all waiting for him, a choice that compounds the narrative momentum rather than flatlining it.
A penis monster in the attic appears in both versions of the feature script, but the theatrical release ends on a different note. Instead of floating into a stadium where he’s publicly humiliated for his many failures as a son and a human, Beau is finally content in a rowboat, which comes stocked with food, water, and a copy of War and Peace — that is, until a cruise ship on which Michelle Obama is leading an aerobics class for overweight kids floats by.
Another major difference between the 2014 and 2023 versions of Beau Is Afraid is that the group Beau stumbles upon while fleeing through the woods midway through the film in the earlier script is more of a self-help commune than the later band of traveling thespians. They’re still called the Orphans of the Forest, but rather than putting on plays that underline the film’s narrative parallels to Homer’s Odyssey, they hypnotize Beau and turn him into a Manchurian Candidate–style sleeper assassin programmed to kill the former First Lady on sight.
The 2014 script at several points mentions news stories playing in the background that describe the murder of various celebrities — Bruce Springsteen, Bob Balaban, Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers — by a sinister group that scrawls a single word at each crime scene, à la the Manson Family: Orphan. In this script, the Orphans are led by an elderly mystic named Yesekov who communicates with Beau telepathically before shitting his pants and dying.
Juvenile humor, you may be gathering, is the most recognizable element of Aster’s early work to come raging back in Beau Is Afraid. (Just check out TDF Really Works, a short Aster made for Funny or Die in 2011 advertising a fake product called Tino’s Dick Fart.) And his 2014 script is 119 pages, which, according to the screenwriting rule of a page a minute, comes out a full hour shorter than the final product. There’s less development of certain elements in this version — Beau’s childhood cruise with his mom is entirely absent, for example. But Beau’s massive balls? Yeah, those are in there. Of the many absurd details that survived Beau’s journey from six-minute short to 119-page script to 180-minute feature, those may be the most psychologically revealing.
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