Beau Is Afraid is straight-up an outrageous spectacle of Ari Aster’s beyond-eccentric auteurism. But what you can’t hold against this 3 infinite hours-long string of absurdities is intentional manipulation. From Beau’s purgatory-like neighborhood to Patti LuPone’s bloodcurdling voice on the first call he makes to his mother, you’re never really in the dark about the existential circumstances of the plot. It wasn’t at all that the ridiculously wild unfurling of Beau’s predicament caught you off guard. Because everything, starting from how the people around him acted to the odd couple that took him in, didn’t really seem like reality to you, did it? And clutching the pole in the center to pivot at the speed of a whirligig is the big “why” of it all.
What it is that Aster’s unstable, endearingly childlike protagonist is afraid of is laid out clear as day in the therapy session that we’re crashing. The draining and, frankly, excruciating cycle of asking for something from someone who has never given it to him is exactly what the therapist warns him about. And there we have our villain. What he’s likely asked of his mother ever since he’d come out of her only to take a panicky while to let out his first yowl is a healthy sense of love. And that, as we’ve seen time and again, has never been his mother’s specialty. There’s always been almost a disturbingly incestuous grasp that Beau’s mother has maintained on him. Coupled with the wildly manipulative guilt trips that she effortlessly sponsors, the hellhound of guilt has snarled and growled at Beau in every waking moment.
When the narrative does resurface from the Aster-esque murky waters of extravagant delusion to take a breath, the air is laced with the poison of some very real-life representations of abuse–only to make the general audience genuinely sympathize with Beau. In an ocean of supervillain-like orchestrations of torture, there are moments when the manipulation hits too close to home. The glaringly manipulative maneuvering of Beau’s decision-making makes his mother come off as a seasoned abuser, a relentless one at that. Spending a lifetime trying to please her, sacrificing his very identity as a human being, and offering himself up on a platter has made breaking out of the cycle of abuse impossible for Beau. Therefore, he’s never actually grown, as is evident every time we see the man whose body has aged yet whose mind couldn’t keep up with the process.
It’s almost sadistic for Beau Is Afraid to take him along on a journey to dream up what life could’ve been had he not been born to that demon of a mother. The film within the film, the animated parallel designed especially as a torture device personalized for Beau, shows him the peaks and valleys of a healthy life and how one is to cope when even a “normal” life is threatened by tragedies. It is heartrendingly indicative of the man Beau could’ve become if only he wasn’t a marionette to his mother’s evil whims. In that fantasy, even as a man who’d lost the very people who’d made life worth living, Beau persevered. It’s only when the masked guardian angel triggers Beau into admitting his non-existent guilt to find his way back to happiness that we know that even his daydreams aren’t without the wounds he bears—the wounds his mother has never stopped poking and prodding, so they never get to heal.
In Beau Is Afraid, the acts are stacked in such a way that by the time you get all the daunting answers, you’re forced to question everything you thought you knew. Bet you absolutely didn’t see it coming when you learned the ferociously ludicrous truth about the enigmatic nature of Beau’s ordeal. His mother designed this ridiculous ruse and killed the housekeeper to fake her own wild death, only to bring Beau to the peak of despair and self-reflection? Not to say that there’s any distance an abuser won’t go to get what they want, but even when you acknowledge all the weapons and privileges at her disposal, you’re probably still not quite convinced that his mother did all this. And you have legitimate reasons to question the reliability of the unhinged climax. Although I’d admit that even questioning and pondering over the nature of the crazy narrative of a crazy film is itself a hilariously futile endeavor. But I guess that is true of everything Aster makes, isn’t it?
There are brazen hints peppered excessively throughout the duration of the film that make you question if any of this is even actually happening. Even without having to dig into the very unrealistic aura of the events, the burning possibility of it all being PTSD-driven paranoia is undeniable. It’s only sensible to wonder if everything Beau believes he’s going through is delusions and hallucinations erupting from the volcanic mountain of trauma that his mother has inflicted on him. I mean, for a man who’s been crippled by the fear of dying while climaxing and been abstinent all his life because his mother claimed that’s how his father passed, it’s only normal that all the ways his mother has ever abused him still dictate the entirety of his worldview. He’s haunted by the imagined guilt of being loud when he hasn’t made a sound. He’s tormented by the fear of having his personal space invaded because that’s exactly what his mother did.
Beau being accused of killing Toni when she chose to drink the paint is also a wretched reimagination of psychotic abusers hurting themselves and trying to manipulate the victim into an admission of guilt. For a man who’s been through as much as Beau has, and considering the very daunting magnitude of his trauma, it’s only extremely plausible that he’d never really be able to trust anyone. So the odds of it all being Beau’s paranoia gets more and more likely the more we see of his demons. Having himself monitored by his mother every step of the way to the point where even his therapist, who he’s been pouring his guts out to, is a mole planted by her, can very well be an inflated manifestation of his paranoia that is clearly caused by his traumatic experiences with his abusive mother.