“I just really wanted to make something strange,” says Ari Aster. This is quite an admission for a writer-director whose breakout was the family drama-turned-Paimon-hailing horror Hereditary and next movie was Midsommar, a meticulous Swedish folk nightmare. How do you outstrange the former, which climaxed with Toni Collette crawling across the ceiling? Or the latter with its ritualistic Scandinavian sex scene? But Beau Is Afraid, Aster’s new horror-adventure film, vaults that bar. It is his biggest, oddest, and most delirious work yet—and one he’s guessing will be “rejected” by many people on first viewing. But we’ll come back to that.
The film follows Beau, an anxiety-ridden and over-medicated man, played with palpable terror by Joaquin Phoenix, who is supposed to go home to visit his mother (Patti LuPone; played in flashbacks by Zoe Lister-Jones). But this proves far more difficult than just hopping a flight. He has his keys and luggage stolen, likely by one of the lunatics roaming the streets of his anarchic world, a parallel to our own. He soon learns his mother—a doyenne of guilt who has cast a shadow over his entire life—has been killed in a chandelier accident. Over the course of the ensuing three-hour odyssey, Beau is kidnapped/adopted by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane and bullied by their pill-popping teenage daughter, pursued by a disturbed veteran, and captivated by a roving theatrical group that sends him into a trance, which is shown in an animated sequence. It’s a Homeric epic doused in Freudian neurosis and tinged with the sensibilities of Charlie Kaufman and Albert Brooks. It also features multiple dick jokes.
“I think this is going to be a misquote, but Harold Bloom said something like, ‘The prime criterion for aesthetic merit is strangeness,'” Aster says when asked about the impulse to make the movie so damn weird, before doubling back and adding: “I’m afraid of how you’re going to use that because I’m not saying that there is any aesthetic merit to this film.”
That self-criticism is typical of Aster, who chooses his words carefully, fearful of how anything he says about his work can be turned into an easy soundbite. Since the release of Hereditary in 2018, Aster has become one of the stars of the indie studio A24’s roster of directors. You would think he has gotten used to the press roadshow by now, but over coffee at Manhattan’s Crosby Street Hotel, the 36-year-old is clearly anxious, though friendly. It’s fitting: anxiety and self-laceration are hallmarks of his work, especially Beau Is Afraid.
But Beau is also a flex, with Aster cashing in the critical acclaim and clout accrued from his first two films with his biggest budget ($35 million, up about $25 million from the first two) and biggest stars of his career. Instead of simultaneously pivoting to a more palatable style, he has used those resources to make his weirdest feature yet, in an oeuvre that includes creepy bird dolls, decapitated little girls, actual bear suits, and love pies spiked with pubes. While his previous movies challenged viewers with their disturbing imagery, Beau is a different beast. It’s horrifying, but less committed to scares and more committed to unsettling psychological absurdism. Aster has made the kind of movie that begs to be debated and analyzed. Long, with no easy narrative for viewers to grasp, it’s nonetheless an intensely creative work of indelible incredible filmmaking.
Beau was born about 12 years ago, in the form of a script that was even more broadly comedic than what it is now. (And, to be clear, this is a movie packed with visual gags, including multiple featuring a pair of distended testicles.) “It was much dumber,” Aster says. “I might even argue that it was funnier because it was only concerned with being funny.” It also wasn’t marketable.
Aster had intended to be his first feature. “I remember I sent this script to a producer friend when I had just gotten out of [the American Film Institute], when I was trying to just get any momentum possible,” he says. “And then the producer friend wrote me back: ‘Yeah, this all very funny, but do you just not want to make a movie? Because nobody will ever make this.'” Aster pivoted to working on a western that will probably be his next feature film, but, alas, that wasn’t a go either. (For all the Aster-heads: Neither Beau nor the western are Disappointment Boulevard, a working title Aster came up with to throw people off the scent of Beau and guide them away from old versions of the script that might be floating around. “It just felt like a title that Beau’s mother might have chosen for the film,” he says. “So it made me laugh.”)
At an impasse, Aster wrote a horror script, which he assumed would be easier to get funded. It became Hereditary. “It was a cynical decision that ended up producing a pretty personal film,” he remembers. It also produced a hit, earning over $82 million on a $10 million budget, with rave reviews to match.
After Midsommar, Aster decided to revisit the Beau script. “I wanted to keep the jokes and keep the humor and keep the worldview, but get closer to the heart of where the jokes were coming from,” he says. He mulled it over during the pandemic, taking time to read relevant texts, specifically, yes, Greek tragedies. Ever heard of a guy named Oedipus Rex who had some mommy issues? Or Medea, who murders her children?
Mothers have loomed large throughout Aster’s work, from his short Munchausen, in which a mom poisons her son, to Hereditary, which produced a viral clip of Toni Collette screaming “I am your mother!” in a violent fury. Beau Is Afraid’s mom is glamorous and terrifying, the type of matriarch who’s always quick to criticize her son—who, in turn, can be a little shit. As you might, Aster is tight-lipped about why mothers interest him so much. “It’s where everything starts for everybody,” he says.
He’s free with his literary references, though. “The idea was to make this Freudian Odyssey,” Aster says. “So it’s very indebted to Freud and Jung and things like that. I wanted to make this Borgesian ouroboros narrative.” It’s also “very Jewish,” he confirms, and it feels it—from a shiva gag to the way it wrestles with guilt on a grand scale.
If a movie that combines symbols of infinity, magical realism, psychoanalysis, and epic poems sounds heady, rest assured that Aster undercuts it all with a raft of prurient and intentionally silly jokes. He takes out his phone to show me just how detailed, and packed with gags, the cityscape that Beau lives in is. On the Montreal set, there’s a store called “Erectus Ejectus.” The movie theater plays fake movies including Tears of a Spaceman. There’s a poster advertising Aster’s version of Criss Angel’s Mindfreak called Braintard and a flier for a music festival with bands including “Anal Puke and “Queef Hammers.” Plus, the walls are decorated with gential-heavy graffiti, some of which Aster drew himself.
Meanwhile, the scale of the production meant Aster was able to reach out to actors he had always wanted to work with, among them, of course, Phoenix—who took some convincing before he signed on. “He doesn’t come onto [just] any project, likely because he invests so much of himself into every part, which I experienced firsthand on this film,” Aster explains. “But my feeling about Joaquin before I offered him the part was that he might be the best actor in the world. And after working with him, I think he’s better than I thought he was.”
Phoenix was a bellwether, Aster says, for when something wasn’t working on set. “It would make him throw up to hear this, but he’s somebody who can’t actually really do anything that’s false,” Aster says. Phoenix would get stuck if he felt something was dishonest: “So often, I would see him almost bumping against something and I realized that something was wrong in the script or that something needed work.”
Aster has always recruited great performers—Collette and Gabriel Byrne in Hereditary; Florence Pugh, the relative newcomer, in Midsommar—but Beau has a dream team of idiosyncratic actors, among them Parker Posey. (“I was in love with her when I was a kid.”) As for the crucial role of Beau’s imposing mom, Aster secured LuPone, who he had seen in a David Mamet play some years ago. He was aware of her talent, but it was footage of her on a red carpet that cemented his desire to cast her. He tries to put the appeal delicately. She was “just being a hardass,” a familiar demeanor to anyone who has seen her put down someone misbehaving in the theater. Phoenix’s process couldn’t have been more different than that of the Juilliard-trained musical theater queen Patti LuPone, who plays his mother, but they “complemented” each other, Aster says.
Watching Beau Is Afraid is an almost distressingly intimate experience, like living inside a panic attack or climbing into someone’s subconscious. You have to give yourself over to the dream logic of Beau’s existence, where just journeying outside your front door is a terrifying prospect. “I wanted the film to be as subjective as you can get and I wanted the feeling to be like you’ve been through a person—through somebody’s nervous system,” Aster says.
Aster is prepared for people to have strong, possibly negative, feelings after watching the film. It’s a big swing, and he knows it. “I’m expecting it to be rejected by a lot of people on first viewing,” he says. “It’s doing very weird things and I’m hoping it’s something that will grow for people afterwards. I think if people do reject it at first that’s not bad,” he continues. “I think that the film almost wants that and then it wants to linger and shape-shift.”
He pauses. “I mean, hopefully, people like it on first viewing as well.”