In the closing moments of Ari Aster’s latest ‘elevated horror film’, our beleaguered hero Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) is sat in a small motorboat – forcefully moored in a giant pool within a darkened stadium full of all the people he has ever known – having to defend his life against none other than his own mother.
Reminiscent of the vast studio edifice from The Truman Show – built for the sole purpose of controlling and monitoring a man’s entire existence for the sake of entertainment – what we are witness to here is a trial for which there has only ever been one result; the damning of a human soul.
As an audience now accustomed to Aster’s acute knack for constructing visual metaphors, this one is a doozy – and one which we’ve arrived at after three hours of angst-inducing episodic storytelling with Beau’s guilty plight (and flight) at it’s core.
50 year-old Beau is living in suspended animation brought about by the domineering actions of his mother (Patti LuPone), who sees in him the failed hopes of a doting parent that has sacrificed everything for her ‘little boy’ with nothing but rejection and heartache to show for it.
The lengths his mother has gone in ensuring Beau’s crippling insecurity are revealed in flashbacks as we see her stifle his attempts at any kind of love or connection to anyone other than herself. And in telling the big lie about his father dying after the intercourse which would result in his birth, Beau adds sex to his growing list of fears – a detail underpinning the film’s running gag about Beau’s ridiculously swollen testicles.
Beau’s view of the world is filtered through the prism of a quaking mass of agitated nerve-endings, so that mundane tasks such as the walk home or a visit to the shops are fraught with danger more likely encountered in an embattled war-zone. His perspective on events is also ours, and it’s worth keeping this in mind when watching a film that the director himself has described as a “picaresque anxiety comedy” – In other words the discombobulated nature of Beau’s odyssey unravels more like a fever-dream than a coherently structured narrative.
Beau’s long journey into night begins as he prepares for an overdue visit to see his mother, but following a series of unfortunate events involving an irate neighbour, stolen keys, rogue spiders and a tattooed madman, he misses his flight. Mum’s disappointment and Beau’s need to please propel him beyond the relative safety of home and out into a world of unknowns, taking him on voyage which gradually peels back the painful layers of dysfunctional mother-son relationships in ways that perhaps only Freud could fully appreciate.
Self-indulgent the film may be, but in questioning the nature of from where our insecurities arise and how deeply they affect our ability to move forward, Ari Aster has made a bold piece of cinema that refuses to be easily pinned down.
Unlike it’s protagonist.
Beau is Afraid is now in Cinemas