Ari Aster doesn’t like to talk about his family in interviews, though given the movies he’s made — Hereditary, about a household bequeathed by its dead matriarch to a demon-worshiping cult; Midsommar, whose heroine is orphaned by a murder-suicide carried out by her sister; and now Beau is Afraid, centered on a guy who’s been permanently stunted by his oppressive mom — family invariably comes up. When asked about the topic recently by the New York Times, he was silent for a moment before responding, “I’m going to have to be a little closed on that one.” With GQ, he went the vague route when questioned about his seemingly inexhaustible interest in maternal dynamics, answering only that “it’s where everything starts for everybody.” I don’t think Aster is being coy, and whatever the details of his childhood might be, he certainly doesn’t have an obligation to share them with the world — biography, while tempting, is rarely the skeleton key to opening up art that it seems like it should be, anyway. And yet something about his circumspection has started to snag like a stubborn hangnail for me as I’ve watched his work, because his films feel deeply, compulsively personal in a way that invites speculation, or, in the case of his latest, demands it. Speculation like, What does his mother think of all this?
Beau Is Afraid is the first of Aster’s three features to not be classified as horror, and, freed from the constraints of genre, it spills into the absurd, the strange, the grotesque, the gleefully juvenile, and, at just shy of three hours, the protracted. I wouldn’t say I like it — after a week of sitting with it, I’ve decided I fall slightly to the side of not — though having an opinion on a movie that’s so consumed with itself feels beside the point. Beau Is Afraid, which Aster made using all the clout he accrued by making two hits for A24, is beyond personal. It’s almost unbearably intimate, like being dropped directly into someone’s subconscious at full, rolling boil. It’s a Freudian fever dream about a smothering, controlling single mother and her timid wreck of a middle-aged son, and while that son, Beau (Joaquin Phoenix, with Armen Nahapetian playing the character as a teen), may not be intended as a directorial stand-in, the subconscious in question is definitely Aster’s. Watching the movie feels disconcertingly like being unhappily drunk at a party whose guests are all old frenemies exchanging snippy, incomprehensible inside jokes you can only smile and nod at while trying to come up with an excuse to leave.
Beau Is Afraid is, in its barest terms, about Beau Wassermann, who lives alone, but who remains hopelessly, resentfully in thrall to his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone, and Zoe Lister-Jones in flashbacks). After missing a flight home to see her, he learns that she’s been killed in a freak accident (crushed by a chandelier), and struggles to get back in time for her funeral. This fantasy of filial failure — you didn’t visit your mother and then she died! — unfolds like a parody of an epic poem, over episodic installments in the pseudo-apocalyptic city in which Beau lives, then in the suburban home of an alarmingly helpful couple played by Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan, then amid a troupe of traveling actors in the forest, then in Mona’s mansion, and finally in a surreal arena of judgement. Beau — pitiful, ineffectual, frequently pajama-clad, his only close relationship with his unflappable therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) — isn’t a Greek hero. But he isn’t not a Greek hero, in that he is the child of a woman who’s part oedipal figure and part legendary monster. He even has a mythical origin story, which is that his father died on his wedding night while conceiving Beau. Or at least, that’s the praying-mantises-mating fable Mona tells him to reinforce all she gave up on his behalf, in just one of the many ways she wields guilt to get her way.
Mona, who’s appropriately terrifying when played by LuPone and unsettlingly sultry-steely when played by Lister-Jones, is the culmination of all the disturbing mommies Aster has put onscreen, in his features as well as in the shorts that preceded them. Like the mother played by Bonnie Bedelia in Aster’s satirical 2013 montage Munchausen, who poisons her son rather than let him leave for college, Mona would rather her son not become a full adult being if that means being out of her control. Like the mother in Aster’s notorious 2011 short The Strange Thing About the Johnsons who willingly ignores the evidence that her husband is being sexually abused by their son, Mona consigns the disturbing truths about her family to the attic. That attic, accessed by a ladder that unfolds from a ceiling hatch, is right out of Hereditary, as is the shadow-shrouded entrance that Mona makes at a certain point in the film, echoing one of the dioramas that the increasingly distraught parent Annie (Toni Collette) makes of her own elderly mom coming into her bedroom at night. Much of the final stretch of Beau Is Afraid feels like the last act of Hereditary redone as black comedy, complete with an epic dick joke in the place of Collette determinedly sawing her own head off — though a headless corpse does feature in the sequence as well.
The proximity to someone with severe mental illness, the victimized or absent father, the all-consuming mother, the iron-clad familial ties that are a source of dread more than warmth, the fear that you’ll pass the damage you’ve accrued on — Aster always made it clear that he glommed onto horror as a strategy, and one reason he’s been so good with the genre is that he channels so many raw and sometimes ugly emotions surrounding these topics into outlandish stories. Hereditary, one of the best horror movies of the millennium, is fueled by palpable fears about inherited trauma and mental health more so than it is by the occult. The unshakeable Midsommar has in its wounded heart the terror of being emotionally dependent on someone who can’t actually be depended on. Beau Is Afraid is less satisfying not because it’s a departure from horror but because it feels like it’s revisiting the same elements without any structure or center. It packs the screen with witty details, features some brilliantly directed sequences, sets up downright baroque punchlines, and is anchored by an incredibly game performance by Phoenix. But ditching the genre framework doesn’t make it feel more honest — its self-deflating comedy is, ironically, that of someone afraid of being taken seriously. So many filmographies have certain themes and images directors return to, but Aster’s recurring interests are particularly evocative. It’s as though, like the portrait of Mona made up of a mosaic of headshots of her employees, his output is adding up to what looks a lot like a depiction of the things he doesn’t talk about.
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