Beau is Afraid Movie Review: The Wild, Audacious Epic From Ari Aster

Review: Ari Aster puts his career and positive public perception on the line to create his most singular and divisive piece of filmmaking yet. Although easily his least accessible and structured movie, Beau is Afraid still manages to work due to Aster’s distinct eye for jaw-dropping images and scenes.

Review for Beau is Afraid directed by Ari Aster and starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Beau is Afraid

It’s tough to anoint someone as the next big thing. Sure, there have been examples in the past of legendary directors hitting big on their debut feature projects, all the way back to Orson Welles crafting one of cinema’s crowning jewels in Citizen Kane to as recently as Greta Gerwig turning out Lady Bird her first time in the director’s seat. But to pick out the one that may hover over everyone else feels like an impossible task – and yet Ari Aster, *keyword* before the release of Beau is Afraid – felt like the one emerging from the overflowing stream of new, innovative auteurs.

And for good reason, too. After all, Hereditary is a defining work of the last decade and feels like a pivoting point for obscene, boundary-pushing horror filmmaking, and Midsommar felt like the final stamp of approval that Aster needed in order to flaunt any idea he had to the highest bidding studio. He’s crafted two movies that, even if you struggle to wrap your arms around them (like I do occasionally), rightfully announce him as an unusually distinct visionary moving forward. And with this new fame and larger-than-life title that he’s gained since his feature debut in 2018 comes the ability to call your own shot – and Beau is Afraid is the shot that will either vault him to legend status or have him taking a studio paycheck directing the new Disney+ exclusive.

Beau is Afraid isn’t just audacious – it’s ludicrous and surreal in a way I’m not sure anyone would’ve expected, even for Ari. Hereditary and Midsommar have always been the works that you love to love, almost like a guilty pleasure, but you couldn’t really suggest that your friends or family watch. There’s a necessary content warning for anyone going into those films, not just those that rarely venture into the shocking imagery that his style of horror indulges in.

His films don’t just display the images one would think are unfilmable; they linger for seconds or minutes and pull the darkest emotions out of you. But to think that this would be where Ari Aster sets his sights next still feels extreme, even when he’s a director that lives in the extremes. 

Beau is Afraid is told solely from the perspective of its titular character Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) as he struggles with anxiety only treatable with remarkably strong medication. After he misses his flight to see his mother due to circumstances outside of his grasp, he is forced to make the journey by other means. Along the way, Beau is confronted by a realm of obstacles both in the physical world and within his own mind.

As straightforward as this synopsis seems on paper, it took me quite some time to cobble together – and I’m not even sure I got it all right. Beau is Afraid is sure to be the most controversial film of 2023, and time will tell where that debate lands. I felt simultaneously challenged and gratified leaving my screening of the film, but that’s in large part because of the reference points I was able to conjure up that helped me make any sense of the episodic scenes Beau maneuvers through along his journey.

There are heavy doses of David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, and headier Coen movies a la A Serious Man, but those are movies that I’m not sure every day Aster fans like or have even seen. Aster’s been viewed as a major voice in horror, and Beau is Afraid is a significant pivot from his previous films that find outlandish plot beats in a rather straightforward narrative structure. Beau is Afraid is anything but straightforward.

There are long, long sequences where you’re disoriented and unsure of the significance, or even how it helps the story move along (like the beautifully constructed animated twist in the middle section that tries to make the argument for the meaning of life – ambitious, if not completely sound thematically). There are some remaining details in Beau is Afraid that carry over from his previous movies, mainly the deadpan comedy style and brutally unique images, but it’s spread over a massive story that feels like Aster putting everything he’s ever envisioned into a film. But like I mentioned earlier, when you make multiple financially successful hits, you gain a baked-in viability, and you get opportunities to make what you want knowing people are going to show up.

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Unfortunately, though, Beau is Afraid may have been a bit too idiosyncratic and (simply put) odd for general audiences. It hasn’t done great business, and if many screenings were like mine, the business that it did do didn’t stay with it through the end credits. We had walkouts, and I’m not sure I’ve had many screenings in the past have ones like this. A few customers gave it two hours of their time but gave up before the third.

Beau is Afraid didn’t fully work for me, but it pulls just enough from aspects that I like about other movies to get me invested. Joaquin Phoenix gives his usual great performance as he putters through an increasingly shifting universe of torture and violence. Many of his visions in the movie clearly come from his own mind and are warped ideas about reality.

The movie continues some of the themes that Ari has worked with in the past – motherhood, estranged families, and the fact that we suck at communicating with one another in society. It’s a much bigger melting pot of ideas compared to Hereditary and Midsommar, but it leads to some of the funniest and darkest moments of Ari Aster’s career.

So yes, I liked it. Did I love it? No, but it’s ambitious as hell and ballsy beyond anything I’ve seen possibly this entire decade. There is always a chance that movies like this find its niche audience later on, and I would bet this does just that. For Ari Aster’s future endeavors, I hope this doesn’t hold studios back from helping him build visions in the future.


Genre: Adventure, Comedy

Where to watch Beau is Afraid: VOD

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Beau is Afraid Movie Cast and Credits

Beau is Afraid movie review and poster


Joaquin Phoenix as Beau Wassermann

Patti LuPone as Mona Wassermann

Amy Ryan as Grace

Parker Posey as Elaine Bray

Nathan Lane as Roger


Director: Ari Aster

Writer: Ari Aster

Cinematography: Pawel Pogorzelski

Editor: Lucian Johnston

Composer: Bobby Krlic

Beau is Afraid movie on Letterboxd

Beau is Afraid movie on IMDb

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