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Beau is Afraid: A Cerebral Dive into Obsessive Guilt

In a modern landscape witnessing modern horror tropes like slasher films and creature features going out of style, Ari Aster has rebranded and refined terror once again. As remakes and sequels are pumped out in a seemingly manufactured fashion, originality in the creative sandbox that is the horror genre has been left in the capable hands of directors like Aster and Robert Eggers. Ari Aster has rapidly become a household name in the psychological horror genre in the last five years after releasing two of the decade's most potent and shocking films, 2018’s, “Hereditary,” and 2019’s “Midsommer.” After a nearly four year break between films to write and create his newest offering, the film community was on the edge of their seats to see what Aster had planned for us next. Aster’s 2023 offering is a cerebral, haunting film called, “Beau is Afraid.” This movie feeds into a unique, untapped type of fear for the horror genre: the fear that comes with crippling anxiety, mental turmoil, and a sheltered childhood. “Beau is Afraid,” takes a fairly common human mental health experience and portrays it as the nightmare it genuinely is. Can you fathom feeling such immense guilt and paranoia that it completely freezes you? Shuts down your body and fills you with so much dread that your only option is to turn away, shut your eyes, and hope for the best? That is the predicament our protagonist, Beau, finds himself in. A terrified, lonely man who we meet at the beginning of the film living in a near apocalyptic neighborhood. Right off the bat, Aster is blurring the lines between reality and Beau’s inner turmoil. Is there actually a psychotic naked knife murderer that perpetually lives outside of his apartment, waiting for him? Is his music really too loud, bothering the neighbors into such a rage that they steal his keys and trash his apartment? It’s hard to say, and that is the ingenious representation of paranoia and guilt ridden obsessive compulsive disorder that Ari Aster portrays in our main character Beau. There are side characters that appear throughout the 4 acts of this film, however, it really plays like a one man show. Beau Wasserman, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a typical airy, off putting, loner that Phoenix has become so talented at performing in the last decade. However, there is something very poignant and genuinely upsetting about Beau Wasserman’s misfortune that separates this character from his others. “Beau is Afraid,” doesn’t have the twisted, horrifying imagery and devastating freak accidents that made Aster’s first two films receive such praise. This film pushes at the stark, confused panic that one experiences in the first few moments after waking up from a nightmare as they’re figuring out if it was real or not. In an interview with Vox, Ari Aster spoke on the film’s nature saying, “The movie is so obviously about guilt that it’s not even worth saying that. It’s about a guy who’s really trapped in himself, really, really trapped. I’m somebody with a lot of ambivalence. Ambivalence is a very particular kind of hell.” This speaks quite a bit to the effect the movie had on me upon my first viewing, and it also speaks to the unique brand of horror - blended in ambiguously with comedy - that Aster formulated for this film. In an age where we are receiving movies of people trapped at the top of a radio tower, trapped at the bottom of the ocean in a cage, and trapped under the overnight tarp of an indoor swimming pool, it’s about time we got some representation for all of us trapped in an endless war with ourselves! The metaphysical, underlying reason behind Beau’s misfortune and guilt seem to stem from his mother. Raised by a billionaire single mother who runs a pharmaceutical company, Beau’s paranoia was instilled in him from a young age, though it seemed abundantly clear to me that Beau was also suffering some form of an obsessive guilt and anxious irrationality disorder. He delays his responses to the anxious tendencies and obsessions out of fear of the consequences of his actions. His panic and inaction is consistently rewarded with a spit in the face by the flaming hot saliva of causality, as the worst possibility makes itself known to him before his very eyes. This movie is raw and unforgiving in the most dreamlike way. The viewer dangles from reality by a thread right there along with Beau, shielded from the truth, only seeing exactly what Aster wants to reveal. The beautiful, horrific irony of “Beau is Afraid,” is that in the end, his fears are all true. Usually the unrealistic fears of an obsessive, guilt-ridden mentally ill person are figments of their imagination, a simple chemical imbalance. However, Aster’s ambivalent mind decided to let Beau’s fears be realized in unfathomable ways: The cast of characters Beau came across on his journey, as well as his mother, reveling in his failure. They solidify his guilt and leave him voiceless - it is only at this moment the viewer becomes truly aware of the fact Beau had not really even done anything in this movie, much less something wrong, which perhaps lends itself to one of the most stomach churning concepts that Aster has decided to put on the big screen thus far. There is quite a bit of nuance in the plotline of “Beau is Afraid.” Layers of sarcasm, fear, hallucinations, and strange secondary character development that might be more enlightening upon future rewatches. This film has already received very mixed reactions, which is understandable. This is a movie with a plot that is so particular, unique, and formulated around larger concepts like The Hero’s Journey, childhood trauma, and the paranoia of violent judgment in modern society; there simply are not a lot of people who see the world through as critical and harshly a lens as Ari Aster. There were specific elements of the movie that hit me very personally and sharply; there were parts of the movie that confused me, made me laugh, and evoked an eerie discomfort. I was not at all prepared for the emotional toll the film had taken on me by the end of its three hour run time. Ari Aster continues to separate himself from the landscape of current film directors as his third offering treads even further off the beaten path of psychological, mind-bending screenplays. This film will likely be leaving theaters of viewers puzzled throughout the entire year, but for the select few that find some unfortunate solace and twisted entertainment from Beau’s neurotic hero’s journey, this may just be one of the finest pieces of art to grace this year. “Beau is Afraid,” is playing in theaters now.

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