I can safely say that Beau is Afraid made me leave the theater feeling disturbed, enlightened, shocked, inspired, and intrigued. I left the theater feeling, well, afraid. Beau Is Afraid has been receiving very mixed reviews and it’s not because it’s bad (although it’s possibly too long) — it’s because some people can’t handle it. But I think most Jewish people are well-equipped to handle this film for better or worse.
Beau Is Afraid is a long and frightening journey into the mind of a man with extreme anxiety and guilt that skews his entire view of reality. During the beginning of the film, director Ari Aster paints a horrifically graphic and layered portrayal of a dystopian city running rampant with crime, homelessness, violence, graffiti, and references to boners.
My friend kept saying to me, “What the hell city is this?”
And I soon realized that it’s most likely just Los Angeles or New York City but exaggerated in a terrifying way since we were seeing it through the eyes of someone with poorly treated anxiety. Beau sees all of the worst case scenarios in every situation and it all plays out on screen for us.
Everything seems to always go wrong for him and his bad luck is almost excruciatingly painful to watch as one cringeworthy thing happens after the other. And as the movie continues, the bad luck turns from grimy city dwellers throwing a party in his crumbling apartment after he loses his keys to haunting deaths, some intentional and some not exactly what they seem.
“I wanted to make a movie that was like a video game but where your character can’t do anything and none of the buttons work,” Aster told TIME. “You’re in the shoes of this person, moving through him —but it’s less about tracking his course than experiencing his memories, his fantasies, his horrors.”
Beau Is Afraid isn’t just a series of unfortunate happenings to an unlucky man. You slowly dive deep into Beau’s psyche, seeing glimpses of a childhood wrought with mommy issues that are almost incestual and trauma over his own sexuality, relationships, and guilt his mother has made him feel about even the smallest of instances. But many of these things come out in unexpected ways that are visually shocking, uncomfortable, and surreal.
In the same vein of people leaving the theater of Uncut Gems due to the tension in the film making moviegoers anxious beyond their limit, Beau Is Afraid isn’t for everyone. If you go in expecting to just laugh and be entertained, this might not be the right film for that moment. You should expect to feel uncomfortable, upset, and stressed. But as a psychological thriller fan and author, I find it quite the feat to make people feel this unsettled over something they’re watching from the outside. And that’s the beauty of Beau Is Afraid to me.
Review By the Numbers
Humor — 8/10
The humor in Beau Is Afraid is really smart and elevated, meaning you have to actually pay attention to what’s going on within the scene and script to realize what makes something jarring, silly, or extreme to say or do. The audience in my theater was laughing at most of the moments that were meant to be funny but it’s hard to say if they truly found it humorous or if it was nervous and uncomfortable laughter.
Acting — 10/10
Joaquin Phoenix was exceptional in this film. You could really feel his emotions in such a raw, visceral way whether it was relief that he didn’t die from an orgasm or fear as a war veteran with PTSD stares at him from out the window. The emotions in his eyes were enough to carry the movie alone.
But the other performances were also excellent, including Patti LuPone as the mother he is supposed to be visiting and Nathan Lane as a dementedly positive surgeon who seems oblivious to Phoenix’s true horror at not getting to his mother’s house on time.
Cinematography – 10/10
If you’re looking for a film that will make you feel something just by the way the camera is angled or the way a scene is lit, this is the movie for you. Every set and every shot is a masterpiece with so much detailed and intentional precision that it will evoke exactly what Ari is hoping to evoke within you. It’s hard to look away, even when the film gets uncomfortable, because there’s always something you should be seeing.
Length – 5/10
Okay, let’s be real. We didn’t need that 30 minute (40 minute?) scene where Beau is transported into a play he’s watching and basically lives out an entirely fantasy life. Like yes, it had a lot of important messages, but those messages were already in the rest of the film. This part of the movie felt like the crew just showing off their creativity but it came off almost pretentious as it continued to drag on. The movie is three hours, so do with that information what you will.
Jewish Guilt – 8/10
Ari has described Beau Is Afraid as a “Jewish Lord of the Rings” and this has been a pretty controversial statement. Some people have agreed with this short description of the very, very, very long movie as it explores a lot of common Jewish themes like guilt — especially with parents — and anxiety. It takes these stereotypical Jewish traits and lets people see it through the eyes of someone experiencing it.
But others have found it offensive to label the movie as “Jewish,” even calling this sentiment antisemitic since the “Jewish mother makes you feel guilty” trope can be a bit harmful depending how it’s handled. This is definitely something I have also pondered but, at the same time, I think enough Jewish people have this experience that it could be seen as a very Jewish experience but exaggerated to the extreme in a very trippy manner.
I still found this concept positive overall because it really dived deep into how guilt can create trauma and emotional turmoil for people, even over the smallest things. Exploring mental illness in such a unique and impactful way is always a good thing.
How Much the Film Made Me Afraid to Lose My Keys – 10/10
Never leave your keys unattended!
This is probably going to be my favorite movie of the year. Seeing it in IMAX made it all the more engrossing. But I also loved Uncut Gems so use that information to guide your decision to see this film or not.