Dense with meaning and aimed squarely at confronting the emotional chaos and collective uncertainty of our present day, writer-director Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid follows one man’s odyssey through the depths of the end of history, finding horror and humor at every turn.
From the creator of Hereditary and Midsommar comes a crack-pot vision of control, inheritance, and escape—the world as experienced by the unforgettable Beau Wassermann, who lives alone in a downtown apartment building where every moment is a waking nightmare.
From one of the most inventive cinematic minds working today comes the story of a man who sets out to visit his mother and discovers a world of malevolent forces and unseen eyes tracking his every move.
A grand, Odyssean adventure and an intimate dissection of its anxious protagonist, Beau is Afraid is a character study about an un-lived life, a hero’s journey for a man whose disposition and temperament are uniquely unsuited to the trials and challenges of dealing with his surroundings, his family, and his own
interior life. Elemental and psychological, Aster’s third feature is a darkly comic epic that feels both sharply contemporary and as old as time—a life put under a microscope and going off the rails.
Milquetoast Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) lives alone in a downtown apartment building where every moment is a waking nightmare. Prone to anxiety and paranoia, he visits his longtime therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who prepares him for his imminent journey to visit his mother (Patti
LuPone). But mayhem ensues on the eve of Beau’s departure, spinning his life in a surreal new direction. Unable to reach his destination in a world gone insane, traveling on roads that don’t appear on any map, Beau is forced to confront his own life and the lies he’s been told by those closest to him.
Aster had the seed of the idea for Beau is Afraid in Los Angeles almost a decade ago
Before his breakout features Hereditary and Midsommar he was writing and directing short films in a darkly comedic register and working on different ideas for his first feature film. With one day remaining on his lease and on the verge of moving out, Aster envisioned a man living in an apartment like his own, riddled with anxiety, afraid of nearly everything, preparing to visit his mother—only he can’t.
That early draft basically came about as an exercise in free-writing, and while Aster now recognizes many literary influences—the Greeks, Borges, Virgil, Kafka, Sterne, Cervantes, Tennessee Williams—the script functioned for a long time as a receptacle for ideas that struck him as belonging to this particular world over the course of years. He christened his protagonist Beau, taking the darkly comic premise of the
archetypal Freudian mother, who is always being blamed and held responsible for the hang-ups and anxieties of her children, making it massive, mythic, and infused with life-pervading guilt.
“Beau is Afraid, in its original incarnation, was a pure parody,” says Aster, who worked on a full draft of the film that was put to the side once his two horror scripts got off the ground. “I wanted it to be my first film, although the first draft was more arch and cartoonish, and was less emotional. But even as it grew, it always functioned as this sort of hellish Freudian picaresque.”
In the years that followed, Aster established himself as one of the pre-eminent masters of modern horror, ushering in a pair of trauma-based shockers that changed the shape and substance of the genre. In both his previous films, as in Beau, unwelcome inheritances and dark family resemblances emerge in moments of great pressure, as fear structures and warps the way characters see those around them—but also
how they see themselves. By the time his second film was finished, Aster felt ready to take on something bigger and urgent to the world we’re living in.
“After Midsommar I felt it was time to make Beau is Afraid,” says Aster. “The rewriting process was very intensive, and I arrived at something very different from the first draft, but its DNA never changed.”
If his first two films struck a chord in part because of their razor-sharp understanding of families and the things that break them, Beau became an opportunity for Aster to work on a larger scale than ever before, crafting something elemental and epic that could speak to the strange and anxious times we’re living in.
The central idea and emotional core of the movie was to convey life through the eyes of a protagonist whose development had been arrested, whose primal fears—about other people, about the way the world works, about his own nature— are revealed to be entirely correct. “It’s not exploring a man’s
life so much as his experience, putting the viewer in his head, inside his feelings, hopefully on an almost cellular level,” says Aster. “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 fears. The movie is Beau’s experience of life.”
Despite the critical and commercial success of his previous features and the fandom that ensued, Aster saw the new incarnation of Beau is Afraid as the ideal vehicle for his range as a filmmaker. “This movie is more me than anything I’ve done before,” says Aster. “My personality and humor are embedded in it.”
With the updated draft complete, Aster began compiling a list of potential actors who could embody Beau Wassermann and his complexities, never thinking he could attract Joaquin Phoenix to the project. The actor had recently won the Academy Award for playing the Joker in Todd Phillips’ brooding
urban bloodbath. He had also signed on to play Napoleon for Ridley Scott, making Aster’s third feature a longshot at best. But to Aster’s surprise, Phoenix wanted the role, and proceeded through his elaborate preparation to make Beau Wassermann as specific a character as any he’s yet played.
To bring the character alive, Aster and Phoenix worked together by poring over the script countless times prior to and during production, discussing the character, his demeanor, what he looked like, what he wore, and what his voice might sound like. “Joaquin asks every possible question an actor could ask,
and he likes to go over the script in great detail – investigating every possible thing,” notes Aster. “We did that before we filmed, and we did it on set as we filmed. We felt our way through the movie.”
Beau is Afraid filmed in Montreal, in locations ranging from urban, suburban and rural, reflecting the story’s journey across multiple story worlds. To bring these diverse worlds alive, Academy Award-nominated production designer Fiona Crombie (The Favourite) transformed a city street into Beau’s
daily environs, scouted and dressed two very different Montreal homes for stops along his journey, and built an outdoor theater in a Cap-Saint-Jacques nature park for the movie’s mid-point forest detour.
“What I found most interesting about Ari’s script was the way the story goes from event to event and location to location, creating these visual story beats you can move between in company with Beau,” says Crombie, whose recent design work includes Disney’s Cruella. “I loved working in a contemporary
setting that had such movement to it visually. Finding a way to connect those things and make it feel like one movie was an exciting challenge.”