Beau is Afraid may well turn out to be Ari Aster’s magnum opus, even though it represents somewhat of a sharp turn away from the horror of Hereditary and Midsommer. In keeping with its Shakespearean grandiosity, the screenplay is divided into five acts, each of which starts with protagonist Beau, played by Joaquin Phoenix, being knocked unconscious. At three hours in length, this is also an American epic, a meditation on the American Dream. More specifically, Beau is Afraid contemplates how it feels to be attached to the American Dream while simultaneously recognising that it doesn’t work, even (or especially) as a fantasy. To chart this decline, Aster takes Beau through five discrete spaces – the city, the suburbs, the woods, his own home, and finally a kind of non-space – that stand for the American lifeworld.
The first of these spaces is the city – New York City, reimagined as a picaresque third world city. The urban decay of the 80s, the culture jamming of the 90s, the post-911 zombies of the 00s, and the economic precarity of the 10s all combine here to inject a casual volatility into the public sphere, along with a comic blitheness. People walk matter-of-factly past pockets of violence, or each person is immersed in their own little pocket of violence, causing Beau to hole himself up in his apartment, and avoid the street at all costs. However, it only feels like a matter of time before he turns into the people outside. As soon as he takes his eyes off the keys hanging in his door, somebody steals them, while his first foray across the street, in a life-or-death situation, ends with everyone on the street making their way into his apartment and taking it over. Poised between his home and the street, Beau both plays as the victim of urban violence and as the possible perpetrator of more urban violence. His paranoid interiority is initially reclusive, but it’s not hard to see how it might become aggressive, in the same way that white shooters typically withdraw from society before returning to punish it.
In his person, then, Beau embodies the volatility of the white male public sphere, turning his perspective on the street into a deranged and damaged Wes Anderson tribute. All the encounters we see here are manic collisions, both verbal and physical, and no space is inviolable from the wave of violence collapsing private and public space. Even when Beau retreats to his bed, hides beneath the covers, and pretends the outside world doesn’t exist, he receives a series of aggressive notes from his neighbour telling him to turn down music that he isn’t playing. When he ignores the notes, this neighbour retaliates by playing music so loud that the walls start to heave and shudder, and the entire apartment feels at risk of imploding. Just as the neighbour tells Beau to turn down music he isn’t playing, this urban sequence culminates with a police officer telling Beau to freeze, when he is already freezing, and imploring him not to force a shootout, when he is doing nothing but submitting. Public space, and the policing of public space, becomes a zero sum game, as Beau careens away from the officer, into an oncoming truck, and into the concussion that ushers in the next act.
This second act unfolds in suburbia, at the home of the family who hit Beau in their truck – Grace, played by Amy Ryan, Roger, played by Nathan Lane, and their daughter Toni, played by Kylie Rogers. On the face of it, their family home, where they promise to nurse Beau until he recovers, is a complete retreat from the war zone of the inner city. In fact, Grace and Roger’s son died in a war zone, but this only seems to further insulate their house, which centres around the calmness of their various shrines to him, especially his bedroom, which has remained untouched since he left for his final tour of duty. Over time, however, the chaos of the inner city starts to intrude again. First, we have Jeeves, the best friend of Grace and Roger’s son, who they took in after he returned from the front. Jeeves is deranged, and is continually performing violent or absurd acts in the background that undercut the placid calm of what is happening closer to the camera. While Jeeves’ madness is initially attributed to the shock of seeing his best friend die, we eventually learn that he went mad in the midst of fighting, and started shooting his own men. It’s even possible he was the one to kill his friend.
In addition, Grace and Roger’s daughter, Toni, undercuts the serene façade of their suburban lifestyle with acts of chaotic cruelty and random anarchy. She’s hostile to Beau from the outset, since he’s initially housed in her bedroom, and performs some surreal pranks, such as getting him high, telling him she’s driving him home, and then circling round and round the block. Soon it becomes clear that this is just a deflected way of puncturing the false calm generated by her brother’s memory, and reinvesting the household with the volatile energy that her whole family have tried to medicate away. In the final suburban scene, Toni drags Beau into her brother’s bedroom, tries to make him drink paint and then, when he refuses, splashes paint all over her brother’s possessions, chugs it herself, and promptly dies on the spot. Greeting the death of a second child with all the horror you might expect, Grace sets Jeeves on Beau, who flees into the woods, hits a low branch, and is knocked cold once again.
This ushers in the third phase of the film, which takes place entirely in the woods, and marks a shift away from the wacky comedy of the first two acts. The suburban sequence, in particular, often recalls Dougie’s forays into Las Vegas suburbia in Twin Peaks: The Return, but that offbeat weirdness is subsumed into a more muted and sombre vein now, as Beau links up with a theatre troupe who “go from forest to forest, off the grid, making homes from whatever we find.” The good life has been thoroughly decimated in both the inner city and bourgeois luxury of the first two acts, but Beau seems to rediscover it here, if only as fantasy. For the stage play that he watches soon segues into an imaginary world, part abstract sets and part animation, that replays his own quest for safety back to him: “Finally, some village will speak to you, and you will say, this me. You will earn a trade, you will build a house with your own hands, you will cultivate the land, you will live off it.” Yet this dream ceases to be even tenable as fantasy midway through the animated sequence, as Beau, now the main character of the play, loses his family, home and village in a giant flood, and is condemned to spent a lifetime of wandering and searching in an attempt to recapture it. At this point, the film shifts back to a war zone, as Jeeves arrives at the troupe, now somehow armed with semi-artillery weaponry, and mows everybody down in the heart of this bucolic woodland setting.
Having exhausted urban, suburban and rural repositories of the American dream, the film shifts to Beau’s own home. Insofar as the film has a plot, it has been Beau’s efforts to travel home. In the first act, he plans to travel home to commemorate the anniversary of his father’s death, but loses his keys. Then, he receives a call to tell him that his mother has been bludgeoned to death, and that he now needs to attend the funeral. It’s at this point he gets hit by Grace and Roger’s truck. Now, he finally arrives home, and finds a house that resists bourgeois insularity, and the dream of the good life as a discrete private space, even more thoroughly than the previous three acts. This house is the opposite of a sanctuary, full of weird inside-outside thresholds that are enhanced by the livestream of his mother’s funeral as it plays across several different media platforms. The design of the house is also disorientingly lopsided. It covers several levels, with bannisters and guardrails on one side, but none on the other, like a Wes Anderson composition that failed to achieve full symmetrical grandeur, which Aster emphasises through otherwise symmetrical shots. On top of all that, Beau’s mother Mona is played by Patti LuPone, which invests the house with a heightened theatricality, a sense of public scrutiny, that cuts against the idea of the American Dream as the acquisition of stable private space. While there are photographs of Beau up on the wall, they’re all advertisements, part of a giant display that has been set up for visitors to chart the evolution of Mona’s enormously successful and lucrative marketing conglomerate.
To fully appreciate the way this sequence plays out, it’s important to mention another aspect of Beau is Afraid – a sixth space, or act, if you will, that percolates in and out of the narrative proper. This takes the form of what Michel Foucault describes as heterotopia, and Gilles Deleuze described as any-space-whatevers – placeless places, endemic to late capitalism, that signal the devolution of physical space itself in the face of financial flows like those generated by Mona’s business. Foucault identified the cruise ship as the heterotopia par excellence, and so it is here, as the story is periodically interrupted to flash back to a trip that Beau, played here by Armen Nahapetian, took with his mother, played now by Zoe Lister-Jones, when he was a teenager. These flashbacks are conspicuously stagebound, theatrical and artificial, and culminate with Mona making a horrific disclosure to Beau. Both his father and grandfather only had intercourse once, and died from a heart attack at the very moment of conception. Even though they produced a family, the core of the American Dream, and of the bourgeois good life, they only did so by dying, and never got to enjoy the spoils of their labour. Beau flees from this horrific disclosure, which suggests he too can only achieve the good life by destroying himself, into the arms of Elaine, another teen traveller, played by Julia Antonelli.
In the uncanniest moment of the entire film, Beau is preparing to leave his mother’s house in the present, when all its porous thresholds finally collapse to bring in Elaine, played as an adult as Parker Posey. In Beau’s childhood memories, Elaine was a counterpoint to Mona, a reprieve from his mother’s disclosure, so it’s somewhat horrifying to discover that Elaine has since been employed by Mona, and worked for her for many years before her death. Yet this also offers Beau a chance to traverse his mother’s influence, by sleeping with Elaine, in his mother’s bed. For the first time in his life, he has intercourse, or brings intercourse to completion, but amazingly he lives, which Elaine reiterates by continuing long after he’s finished, as if to reiterate to him that, despite all his fears, he is still alive. That just makes it all the more traumatic, then, when Elaine herself suddenly dies, and Beau’s residual relief at still being alive is eclipsed by the fact that Mona, who enters the room now, is still alive too.
It turns out that Mona staged her death, and set up Beau’s journey, to prove to him once and for all that the good life cannot exist. As in Hereditary and Midsommar, this horrific revelation revolves around head trauma. First, and most literally, Mona’s maid agreed to have her head and face crushed, and so pose as Mona’s corpse, in exchange for Mona setting up her extended family for life. Second, and more allegorically, Mona takes Beau up to the attack to meet his father and grandfather, who both appear as a giant monstrous phallus, divested of everything except the moment of conception, in the grotesque centrepiece of the film. In a revision of the Gothic trope of the madwoman in the attic, this phallus-monster shows that the insane energy of the city, which featured a fair amount of chaotic male nudity, hasn’t just trickled into the suburbs, the woods, and Beau’s own home, but into the most fundamental building-block of the good life. In its terrifying, ridiculous, bathetic and moving appearance lies the film’s core: aching nostalgia for an American Dream no longer tenable even as fantasy.
This ushers in the fifth and final act, an echo of the heterotopic any-place-whatever of the cruise ship, but in which Beau is now entirely alone on an ocean, on a tiny boat that eventually leads him to a rocky island, where Mona and her lawyer interrogate him in front of a stadium of spectators, in a dark descendant of Defending Your Life or A Matter of Life and Death. I haven’t quite figured out why, but the flipside of Aster’s decimated heads seems to be faces that watch from just far enough to remain slightly inscrutable, without being entirely invisible. Perhaps we’re meant to see in this alternation between traumatically mutilated heads and receding faces a male gaze, a broader cinematic gaze, that grows more distant from the screen even as the spectacles designed to retain it grow ever more violent as well. In any case, the lexicon of the film now shifts to this second kind of face, as the trial audience filter out so gradually you barely notice they’re gone until the space is empty. In the process, Beau falls into the water, and the boat capsizes. He still feels present, but doesn’t rise to the surface either. I pictured him subsisting for as long as possible in the bubble of air beneath the upturned boat – like the film, drinking in a fantasy that has a clear horizon, a fantasy he can’t endorse, but that he can’t discard either, with all the tortured tragicomic tonality that entails.