Sometimes a movie comes to light that is so awe-inspiring and labyrinthine that all you can do is admire it for what it brings to the table. If Steven Spielberg made an extremely dark epic comedy about a dying man, it would be completely antithetical to his filmography, but maybe it would turn out something like this. Beau Is Afraid is fresh cinema. It is tedious, excruciating, nauseating, anxiety-inducing, and every other unfavorable adjective that has been used to describe it, but that’s the point. Not to say that it doesn’t warrant criticism because it’s an absolutely genius film, but just that, that is the actual intention of the film, to make one feel disoriented and uncomfortable. Beau Is Afraid is the grand, endless odyssey of a man who has been plagued with anxiety his whole life. There’s no escaping it; that is his absolute reality, and once we open our eyes to this possibility, it makes things slightly clearer. There can be many interpretations of this deep film by director Ari Aster, so let’s try to get into some of them.
The plot of Beau Is Afraid can be divided into four main acts. The film begins with Beau’s birth and the chaos that surrounded him when he came out of the safety of his mother’s womb, only to be dropped on his head immediately. A baby that isn’t crying is a baby dying, and we hear Beau’s mother scream in agony at the doctors, who are unable to bring him to cry until they spank him. The title credits appear with the terrifying screech of a baby’s cry. This scene establishes that everything we’re seeing from here on out is from Beau’s terrified point of view.
Act 1: Visiting Mom
Beau is set to visit his mother, and a day prior to this trip, he has a visit with his therapist. The therapist establishes that Beau feels a certain guilt for not wanting to visit his overbearing mother, feeling an uneasy hatred towards her. Interestingly, the therapist compares Beau’s visit to his mother to having to drink from a poisoned well twice. If the well made you sick the first time, would you want to go back? This is not the first time we’ll see water used as a symbol for Beau’s anxieties. The therapist scrolls down “guilty” in his notepad, even before Beau can say anything to him, because whatever Beau is going to answer is going to be uncertain to him personally, but the therapist is well-equipped with information (or misinformation; we’ll know more later). The therapist gives him a new drug to make everything better but warns Beau that he cannot, under any circumstances, consume it without water.
Immediately Beau takes the medication, and around him we see a mother scream for her son and tell him to be with her at all times, while Beau hears a voice note from his mother simultaneously in which she says she loves him very much. Beau is exposed to a heightened version of all things wrong in America: people doing drugs, gun violence, just violence, homelessness, etc. Even the graffiti on the walls of his building carries terrible messages. These are the things Beau is afraid of (That felt good). Previously, Beau purchased a Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus statue, and back at home, he wrote a loving message to his mother on it, which looks like a goodbye note, specifically because it looks like he’s apologizing to his mother for this day being his dad’s death anniversary.
Beau’s night is completely messed up by his neighbor, who keeps telling him to keep his sound down when he has no music on. When Beau wakes up, he’s very late for his flight to go see his mom. He quickly gets ready, and just as he’s about to lock the door, he realizes he’s left something behind and rushes back inside. By the time he returns, the keys and his suitcase are gone, and now Beau is exposed to whoever has stolen his things. He immediately calls his mother and asks her to make a decision for him because he doesn’t really know what to do. This too is a recurring pattern because Beau often finds himself in a position of indecisiveness. His mother doesn’t believe his story at all and patronizes him with the words “You will make the right decision”. This is extremely taunting of her because her overbearing nature has incapacitated him from thinking rationally for himself.
In his worry for whoever might come inside his house, Beau takes the pills the therapist prescribed to him again, but he’s out of water at home. The entire building has no water, so Beau runs across and gets a water bottle for himself. But he doesn’t have the keys, so he can’t enter the building again, so he leaves a telephone book at the door to stop it from closing completely. Unfortunately, this allows all the strangers from around him to enter the building and throw a rager in his home. Beau waits all night outside the house, and in the morning they’ve all left, and he returns home. His house is completely tattered, and a dead man lies in front of his open door with Beau’s phone in his hand. Beau makes a call to his mom to tell her that he’s making his way again, but the phone is answered by a stranger who says that his mother is dead and a chandelier decapitated her body as if her face “evaporated” from the scene.
Beau, too shocked to understand the weight of it all, sits in his tub, thinking of calling her again, but before he can, he feels droplets fall onto him. It’s a man on his ceiling who has a vicious spider crawling up his face and falls into the tub onto Beau. Beau and the man struggle to get out and breathe. Beau manages to escape and runs out of the building naked, where he sees a man with a knife. This man appeared on his TV previously as a naked person stabbing strangers. Beau is quick to run the other way and rush to a policeman, who instead of listening to what he’s saying, tells him to drop his weapon. The weapon in question is the Virgin Mary statue that Beau ran out with. Beau realizes the policeman might shoot him, so he runs in the other direction, getting hit by a car. Beau’s eyes open to a dream of his mother telling him to stop troubling her and get inside the tub.
Act 2: The Suburban Dream
Beau was hit by a surgeon’s wife, and because he was also stabbed by the naked stabbing man, he was saved by them and taken to their home. Grace and Rogers are a perfectly happy couple who lost a son in action and have a younger daughter who pops pills like candy. They’ve also “adopted” a man who was in the war with their son but killed all the people in his squad in his madness who lives in a caravan near the house. Roger and Grace treat Beau as if he was their own son. They give him love, food, and a perfect room, which is actually their daughter Toni’s. Beau calls somebody to make sure that what he heard about his mom was right and immediately tells the family that he needs to leave right away. Roger, though, says Beau needs rest for at least 2 days to survive the journey, and he’ll drive Beau himself.
Toni hates Beau because he’s stolen her room and is an unwanted “brother” to her. This entire section is a depiction of the weight of grief on a family with children lost at war. Instead of focusing on their daughter, Toni, the parents are too busy looking for another son. They’re so delusional in their grief that they keep the man who may have killed their son in the vicinity of their home, with no concern for their daughter’s life. Toni takes drugs and coerces Beau to do the same as a joke, but her rebellion is only an act of showing herself. Grace, on the other hand, is very different from Mona, Beau’s mother; she’s very loving but not overly smothering, but Grace seems to have a message for Beau; she tells him to stop “incriminating” himself just before things start to get really absurd.
In the finale of this act, Toni gives Beau a tin of paint and tells him to drink it with her. She’s extremely unhinged, possibly from the number of pills she’s taking. Beau can’t understand what’s going on as Toni takes the pink paint and paints Beau’s name on the wall of her brother’s room, to show him replacing both her brother and her. (because they’re in his room and she’s written all over his pictures and because it’s in pink paint, pink generally representing girls, in this case, herself). Beau is frozen as he watches Toni gulp down the blue paint all by herself because he doesn’t join her. Before he knows it, she’s dead on the floor, and Grace tries to save her, blaming it all on Beau. What she doesn’t realize is that this is all their fault. Beau runs away into a forest, realizing Grace is going to kill him if he stays there. In the forest, he hits a tree and falls unconscious.
Act 3: The Forest And What Could’ve Been
Beau wakes up groggy and continues to walk into the night aimlessly. He sees a heavily pregnant woman and asks for her help. Beau seeks out women who have a strong maternal instinct to help him. He feels safest around such women and doesn’t panic until something terrible happens, like when Grace decides to chase him with a sword. Beau trusts the woman named Penelope, and she asks him to follow her. Penelope takes Beau to what looks like a theater camp in the forest. These people are like drama-loving gypsies who put on shows in the forests, building props and sets with whatever they can find. Beau is fascinated by it all, but he does notice some people acting strange here too. They give him a change of clothes, as they like to blur the lines between the audience and the actors. Soon, Penelope seats Beau next to her as the drama begins. A young man mourns the deaths of his parents at their grave. Seasons pass, but he’s still there. Finally, an angel asks him to choose between staying there and leaving. He chooses to leave, but he’s chained to the ground. The young man breaks the chain with an axe, and seamlessly, the actor is replaced by Beau. Beau sees himself in this story because his mother has just died and he is free from her chains, so how would Beau’s story play out now?
Beau’s story begins with him traveling through dozens of villages until he reaches the one that calls to him. In life, Beau has never been able to make a decision, so we can assume that everything that happens in Beau’s play is his fantasy. In the play, Beau earns a living, builds a home from scratch, and even finds a wife. A lady narrates Beau’s story; she sounds eerily like his mother. For Beau, finding his other half meant that both of them had to be lost and guided home. They have three kids that Beau loves deeply, and he teaches them everything he knows. One fine day, a flood washes away Beau’s home, and he gets separated from his family. It’s always water that changes things for Beau, for the good or the bad. The flood carries Beau away to an unknown country where no one understands his language. This could be interpreted as how Beau has his own world, and everyone around him doesn’t see it the way he does. Hence, his undiluted fear of everything Ever since he came out of the womb, he was separated from the life he could’ve had and the safety he needed.
In the other country, Beau is blamed for committing a crime and incarcerated, but he flees. A dog is sent after Beau, and it pursues him across the world. Beau doesn’t know about this, but he has a feeling that there might be something. He writes about his adventures and this feeling. It is through Beau’s fear of surveillance that we can connect with the dog. He always feels like someone is following or watching him; he is filled with paranoia. But he searches for his family for years, until he collapses in exhaustion with no food, water, or shelter. A woman appears before him, and she tells him that he has been lost in his own selfishness, which is why he didn’t realize that he was also searched for. If he confesses, everything will be alright. In the play, Beau is said to have confessed to “everything,” but we don’t hear it. Simply because neither Beau nor we as an audience see him as guilty of anything. Beau just thinks he has done something wrong, so he probably confesses his whole life story. Finally, he gets some drinking water while lying down and falls asleep (water again). Miraculously, he wakes up in his old village to find a special play being acted out on the same day. Instead of spending his last dollar on food, Beau goes to see the play and realizes it is his story.
It is like the Inception of plays, and he stands up as he sees his three sons on stage. They immediately recognize him and embrace him. Beau is terribly happy until they ask where their mother is, but Beau had thought she was with them. Beau tells the kids about their grandmother and when they ask about their grandfather, Beau admits the man died when he was in bed at the time of conceiving Beau. In what looks like a memory dream, we see Beau’s mother telling him as a child that he can’t be intimate with anyone because he has a heart condition, just like his father, who died while having sex on his parents’ wedding night. So Beau claims he’s never been with anyone, but how would he have had his kids? It’s a lightbulb moment for Beau, and he feels brought back to reality. Suddenly Beau is standing in the forest again, watching the play, but he’s interrupted by a man who says he knew Beau’s father and that he’s still alive. At the beginning of Beau Is Afraid, in Beau’s apartment, he said hi to a picture of his father. This man essentially looks like the man in the photo, and Beau realizes it’s in fact his father, but before he can do anything about it, The actor on stage gets stabbed in the heart, and Beau’s father gets blown up while he tells him to scream. A little while earlier, Beau had given his Virgin Mary statue to Penelope as a sign of gratitude, but this could also appear to be an expression of Beau starting to separate himself from his mother and anything he associates with her. Penelope is the first person to escape when the actor gets stabbed, and if we try to relate this to Beau’s mother, it’s almost as if the mother is always safe. Beau too escapes, but the guy chasing him has the controls for the monitor on Beau’s ankle, and he incapacitates Beau through the device. Again, Beau is lying on the forest floor.
Bonus Act: The Bathtub And Elaine
There could be a few reasons why water is so important to Beau. One of them is Beau’s nightmare, where he sees himself being dragged into an attic because he isn’t willing to step into the bath that his mother has filled up for him. Every act is divided by a dark screen (I could swear I saw some waves in one of them) when Beau becomes unconscious, and every time, we see this memory of his. The other one could be how he met the love of his life, Elaine, on a cruise. Elaine is the exact opposite of Beau; we can say she’s an aspirational figure in many ways. She argues with and hates her mother, while Beau quietly listens to his own mother even when he doesn’t want to. On this trip, we see Beau and his mother share a bed, and the way she speaks to him doesn’t seem quite normal; it’s almost as if she’s jealous of Elaine, in Freudian terms, the opposite of the Oedipus complex or the Jocasta complex. To put it into perspective, it seems like Mona tried really hard to have a child, and when she did, she wanted him all to herself, never to be shared. Hence, she terrified Beau with the idea of intimacy and made him believe he would die if he got intimate with anyone. When he gets electrocuted, Beau sees Elaine in place of his mother; this only solidifies the theory that Beau associates love only with his mother.
Act 4: Home And The Funeral
Finally, Beau wakes up and gets a ride to his mother’s house. The funeral has already been conducted because everyone assumed Beau was just not going to show up. As he walks down a spiral staircase, we see pictures of him on the walls; they’re all of young Beau’s achievements, except one, which looks like it’s from his apartment the day he was supposed to leave. Beau’s mother has been running a successful business for the last 40 years (Beau’s age), and Beau was the poster child for all her products. Ironically, MW provides shelter, medication, and therapy—all things Beau is in need of, and if we watch Beau Is Afraid back, half the things Beau owns in his apartment are MW products. Mona is omnipresent in Beau’s life; she’s essentially his God. There’s even the same Mother Mary statue outside of her house—the same one Beau had as a gift for her. There’s a huge picture of Mona made up from the pictures of her employees, and Roger is one of them. When Beau is done looking at the perfectly decapitated body of his mother, he decides to go rest. He’s woken up by a grown Elaine, who doesn’t really remember him and is shocked to know that he waited for her. But she’s willing to put it all aside so they can sleep together in her employer’s bed, Beau’s mother’s!
When Beau and Elaine get at it, Beau is overwhelmed with fear that he will die. He screams for her to stop, but she continues on until they’re both satisfied. Beau feels so “alive” at that moment and thanks her for the amazing experience and opening his eyes to the fact that he won’t die from having intimate relationships, but to his utter shock, she’s the one who is dead. Ironically, the song playing in the background is “Always be my baby,” and soon after, Mona actually shows up at the door of the room. She berates him about having intercourse only a few days after finding out she was dead and takes off the freshly stained sheets (eww). Elaine’s body gets carried away by two of Mona’s employees as Beau gets dressed.
What Was In The Attic That Beau Was So Afraid Of?
The person who really died was Martha, Beau’s beloved nanny, and this elaborate ruse was staged because Beau wouldn’t come to see his mother. Instead of being normal and coming to find Beau herself, Mona pretended to be dead, and that too in such a horrific manner. Martha tells Beau that she knew he was lying about the stolen keys, and he just didn’t want to come see her. She even had Roger test him when he was in their house, when he asked Beau repeatedly if he was okay with going home the next day and not immediately. If Beau’s terrified expression was any indication, it was that he wanted to leave but had no choice but to go with Roger’s plans. Mona has always thought that Beau has been scheming against her his whole life. Even as a baby, he refused to breastfeed, rejecting Mona and making her angrier for having a child.
In hindsight, when Mona asks Beau, “Where on earth is he going to go?” she’s admitting that wherever he goes, she will be there. Mona claims that Beau always had other people make decisions for him, and we can’t help but think it’s Mona’s smothering that led to equivocation rather than indecisiveness for Beau. In the same breath, she mentions her own mother and how she blamed Mona for all her wrongdoings, clearly hinting at generational trauma. We can also look at attachment theory to understand Beau’s relationship with his mother, the sole caregiver in his life. Mona is so controlling that she even had Beau’s therapist give her all his information. A common fear that people have is that their private conversations will be shared with their loved ones, especially if they are talking about them.
Finally, Beau is put in a position to ask his mother about his father with conviction. The bathtub was always a memory for Beau, and he was in fact punished by being sent to the attic. When Beau enters the attic (by force of Mona, who pushes him up the stairs), he sees a grown version of himself chained to the wall in the same clothes he was wearing before getting into the bathtub. The incident traumatized him so much that Beau felt like he was completely abandoned as a child and ended up lost in the dark, never coming back to himself. This is why Beau is so immature and childlike every time he must face his emotions; he’s never moved on from there. Added to this, Beau finds a monster male reproductive organ in the room, which is supposed to be his father. Beau has never known the man, and so the only thing he was, was an organ that helped create Beau. Why is he a monster? Maybe because Beau feels the act of abandonment is monstrous. The army man who has still been following him finally shows up and gets killed by the monster organ. Screaming, Beau falls down the stairs of the attic and gets dragged by his therapist to Mona. Beau apologizes profusely and even kisses his mom’s heels. All of this happened because Beau showed a slight interest in “loving” another person.
Mona tells Beau that she had to “squeeze herself dry” to give him love, and she kept giving, but all she got in return was unfulfilled promises. Beau just shivers and stands in front of her, but when Mona mentions in her anger that she hates Beau, he suddenly grabs her by the neck. Beau chokes his mother until he suddenly snaps back to himself and realizes what he’s done. Again, he apologizes for hurting her, and with a gasp, she falls into a table to her death.
What Happens To Beau In The End?
Beau gets inside a boat and enters a really strange-looking cave that could be a metaphoric representation of a woman’s reproductive organs. When he comes out of the other side, Beau faces a trial with spectators. Mona’s attorney is extremely loud and calls out everything that Beau did in the past few days and throughout his entire life that showed signs of hatred towards his mother. On the other side, Beau’s attorney is almost inaudible and talks from a distance, like his opinion doesn’t matter at all. In the middle of it all, Beau’s attorney is flung off the high platform he is on and dropped on a sharp rock, where he crushed his skull (see the Midsommar reference, Ari). In the end, it really doesn’t matter what Beau has to say as Mona drops the bar she’s holding onto into the water below her. A loud trumpet sounds, and Beau cries for help until his voice is lost. The spectators begin walking away, while Beau continues to scream because his feet are glued to the boat and there’s nothing he can do. During the ending of Beau Is Afraid, we find out that the boat topples, and Beau is struggling hard underwater until it freezes completely. Though the ending of Ari Aster’s film is a bit ambiguous, we believe that there can be many interpretations and explanations of such a conclusion.
Maybe he has schizophrenia, maybe he’s just paranoid, and maybe this is all a dream, but there are some things that do not change in all these cases. Mona and Beau’s relationship is the starting point for all his problems; just as in the play, he was flooded by Mona’s love, which kept him away from everything he wished for: a loving family and a happy life. In terms of the spectators, it can be viewed as how we as humans can see people’s cries for help when they’re not mentally ill, but we can’t or choose not to do anything about it. As much as we sympathize with Beau, we can’t save him in the end; we just get to watch him drown in his fears. Sometimes, people just can’t be saved. It can be assumed that Beau died after taking the pills without water and drowning in his bathtub, so we see water every time he hits his head. Essentially, we are flashing through his entire life, moments before he meets his maker. So, it’s only fitting that he did a full 360 and returned to his mother. In the end, Beau’s guilt would never fade away, and we can also deduce that the note at the back of the Mother Mary statue was a suicide note. Ultimately, Beau was always afraid.