Beau Is Afraid Review: Ari Aster’s Third Film Is Hilarious And Insane Organized Chaos

Beau Is Afraid cements Ari Aster as one of the most fascinating big screen storytellers working today.

Joaquin Phoenix in Beau Is Afraid
(Image: © A24)

Ari Aster’s Midsommar is shocking, horrific and mesmerizing, but one underrated aspect of the fantastic 2019 film is its sense of humor. Amidst the escalating terror and nightmare imagery is a sly winking – a sense that Aster is grinning as his characters trip on shrooms under a midnight sun and is cackling as the protagonist’s terrible boyfriend is sewn into a bear corpse before being set on fire. Hereditary, the writer/director’s feature debut, doesn’t operate the same way, but Midsommar suggests a lurking twisted and wild comedic sensibility.

Beau Is Afraid

Joaquin Phoenix in Beau Is Afraid

(Image credit: A24)

Release Date: April 14, 2023
Directed By: Ari Aster
Written By: Ari Aster
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Zoe Lister-Jones, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Richard Kind, and Parker Posey
Rating: R for strong violent content, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language
Runtime: 179 minutes

Beau Is Afraid, Aster’s third and latest film, confirms it.

A wholly different cinematic experience than its predecessors, Beau Is Afraid is essentially an exercise in organized chaos. The story unfolds across three distinctly structured acts as the titular character (Joaquin Phoenix) endures a trouble-filled trip to see his mother (Patty LuPone) – a high concept plot… but it’s set in a world of unfettered madness and unyielding stress. Practically every moment can be described as a worst case scenario, and Beau, raised in a state of fear, is forced to do a headfirst dive into all of his anxieties in hopes of pleasing his overbearing mom.

It’s Beau’s intention to go home to be with his mother on the anniversary of his father’s death, but it’s a task he struggles with almost immediately due to the horrors of his living conditions: a decrepit inner-city apartment above a sex shop that has a constant flow of lunatics roaming out front, a deadly brown recluse spider on the loose and psychotic neighbors who hallucinate that he’s blasting music at all hours (and retaliate by blasting music of their own). Life is constant alarm, and he reasonably dreads the outside world, but his journey is able to eventually begin in earnest after he is attacked in his bathtub, goes running out into the street, is held at gunpoint by a cop, gets hit by a car and is stabbed by a homeless man several times.

Beau Is Afraid is destined to inspire extreme reactions – but keep an open mind.

In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear, Beau Is Afraid will probably go down as the most extravagantly weird film of the year – and as such, it’s also going to be regarded as one of the most polarizing. It’s a major auteur flex from Ari Aster, who surely cashed in every drop of studio good will from Hereditary and Midsommar to make it, and movie-goers who see what he’s doing and get on his wavelength are going to have a ball (and be able to weather the energy drop in the second act). On the other hand, those who don’t keep an open mind and are exclusively expecting something more akin to Aster’s first two features may be inspired to get all rage-y about it on Twitter and react with exaggerations like “WTF worst movie ever” – but this is me strongly recommending that you to not be that person.

Beau Is Afraid is quick to tell you exactly what kind of film it is. When you register its phenomenally odd flavor, it’s really best to just lean back in your theater chair and await the next dose of radical weirdness that is constantly waiting around the corner to abuse the eponymous protagonist and both shock and inspire hysterics in the audience. You won’t always be able to fully understand the reason why something is happening, either in the moment or looking back on the work in its totality, as the movie functions with its own crazy logic – but if you embrace it, you’ll find yourself marveling at it.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers another outstanding lead performance in Beau Is Afraid, and he is surrounded by excellence.

It’s certainly far from surprising that Joaquin Phoenix would excel playing an off-kilter character, but what makes his work in Beau Is Afraid particularly noteworthy are his subtle choices for a protagonist living in an extreme world. He certainly has his moments of panic where he screams, runs and charges through glass doors, but mostly Phoenix keeps Beau’s feelings of fear, guilt, and anxiety behind his eyes, and it has a brilliant grounding effect that only enhances all of the insanity that is going on around him.

Having the opposite effect is the tremendous supporting cast who each have their own way of feeding the film’s wild tone and plotting and all look like they are having a blast doing so. Playing the couple that strikes Beau with their car, Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan are spectacularly demented as Roger and Grace (a pair of mourning parents who seemingly aim to keep Beau at their home as a surrogate for their dead son) – and special mention goes to Kylie Rogers, who plays their daughter and behaves in quite interesting ways to express her dislike of Beau potentially being her new brother. Patti LuPone, Parker Posey and Richard Kind additionally deliver terrific performances… but it would be saying too much to describe specifics of their roles.

From vicious lunacy, to striking animation in the second act, to endgame revelations that make you rethink everything, Beau Is Afraid is madness that has to be witnessed to be fully grasped, and even after that you’re still going to need a lot of time to get your mind around all of it. It’s a remarkable work of tone and character that goes to some bewildering and mind-boggling places (let it be known that I’ve held back writing about a lot of ridiculous surprises in this review), and it not only demonstrates Ari Aster’s tremendous range, but cements him as one of the most fascinating big screen storytellers working today.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.