June Butler enters the world of Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid.

Ari Aster shows us what he’s really made of in his latest offering, Beau is Afraid. Imagine the worst of neuroses, where nothing is as it appears to be and literally everyone poses a threat. There is no safe-haven – not from doctors, therapists, the police, apparent good Samaritans (who turn out to be really bad Samaritans), love interests, parents, friendly acquaintances, or children. The people who should most signify safety, are the ones Beau has the greatest reason to hide from. Portends and omens all point towards one thing – that Beau has an unquestionable right to be fearful of the world he lives in and just cause to be cautious in everything he does. Except, like the direst of curses, whether Beau turns another corner, takes a left instead of a right, goes up instead of down, nothing at all saves him from the multiple bogeymen (and women) who seem to find him no matter where he takes refuge.  

Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in a state of constant flux. His life is a bottomless pit of psychoses and eccentricities. He can’t experience joy and inner peace eludes him. Night after night, his neighbours hold raucous parties. Music pounds through the thinnest of partition walls and a resident of the ramshackle building Beau lives in, persists in sliding unsigned, threatening notes under Beau’s door accusing him of being the noisy perpetrator. He finally falls asleep and is awoken by a phone ringing. It is a publicist working for his mother Mona Wasserman (Patti LuPone) who tells him that Mona has just passed away. He advises Beau that the funeral will be delayed until Beau arrives to pay his respects.

And if you thought Beau was a little unfortunate, this is literally the point where his entire world implodes.

Beau books a flight and exits his apartment with a small suitcase. As he places his keys into the lock on the door, Beau hears the phone ringing and re-enters the apartment to take the call. The caller hangs up and Beau returns to his suitcase and keys only to find that both have now disappeared. In a state of panic, he rings his mother’s publicist to tell them the news. The publicist doesn’t appear to believe him. The water in Beau’s apartment has been turned off and Beau needs drinking water to take oral medication. He has no choice but to leave the door to his apartment open when he goes to the local market to buy a bottle of water. Beau wedges a telephone directory in the main door to the block and heads across the street. A madman accosts him screaming invectives. Beau doesn’t have enough money to pay for his purchase. He hastily throws all remaining coins on the shop counter and returns to his apartment complex only to find a conga-line of local down-and-outs have shut the door to his building and are now proceeding up the stairs towards his apartment. He climbs a fire escape and bangs on the windows – inside it is utter mayhem. The invaders destroy his furniture and what meagre possessions he owns.

On and on the plot unravels. Every step the unfortunate Beau takes is fraught with danger and there is just no end in sight.   

In film, a McGuffin (or MacGuffin) is a thing, event, device, or object that is relevant to the plot and drives it along. In and of itself, it is often not central to the narrative and in some cases, is discarded as the story evolves. The British screenwriter, Angus MacPhail coined the term. Alfred Hitchcock appropriated the concept and made it his own. A classic example of a McGuffin is viewed in the opening scenes of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) steal a sizeable sum of money from Marion’s employers. The theft proffers a plausible reason for Marion’s flight from the crime scene and her solo arrival at Bates Motel. The McGuffin in this instance, is the stolen money. It later becomes less pertinent to the story but is initially necessary to justify Marion’s actions in early scenes. 

Beau Is Afraid runs on an endless continuum – a ceaseless, infinite loop of McGuffin after McGuffin that ebbs and pools, falls and flows. On their own, each individual story can’t keep the momentum going but combined with Beau’s efforts to stop the matrix unravelling and avert verbal attacks, violation, being stabbed and taken advantage of, to consider these a sequence of MacGuffins is utterly logical.

His apartment keys and suitcase are stolen. Beau leaves the apartment to buy water. He is then unable to re-enter the apartment. Each ping, every ‘guff’ and ‘weenie’ (as it was labelled in the 1914 silent melodrama, The Perils of Pauline, to signify how convoluted plots moved forward), indicate Beau’s pinball machine existence. He is simply responding to his environment instead of being an active player. Some of the events are horrific – people are mutilated and tortured.  The world is happening to him and not the other way around and he is unable to prevent the horrific acts from occurring.

It is Ari Aster at the top of his game and Joaquin Phoenix as the hapless Beau lurching from crisis to calamity and onwards towards an acme of disasters and familial betrayals, would give the most stoic and balanced of individuals time to reflect and seriously consider never leaving their homes again.

I did not anticipate the closing scenes unfolding the way they did – Aster has come under some criticism for this but I think the ending has its place in the grand scheme of things. There is a decent amount of commitment to Beau Is Afraid given the length of running time, but it is well worth the watch. 

Beau Is Afraid is in cinemas from 19th May 2023


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