The Masterclass in Anxiety of Beau Is Afraid’s Opening Act

Ari Aster‘s work is many things to many people, but a reasonably universal feeling is that he knows how to conjure up an uncomfortable feeling.

If Hereditary and Midsommar didn’t provide you with enough proof of that, then Beau Is Afraid proves to be a masterclass in it. It is an almost unceasing saga of fantastical awkwardness and anxiety.

It’s the latter that is showcased to perfection in the opening to Aster’s latest. It gets us inside the headspace of the troubled Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix) as he agonizes over having to meet his overbearing mother. On-screen, Beau’s many fears come to the fore in a salvo that ratchets up the tension and unease as a terrifying farce plays out where every worry Beau has about the impending trip plays out in a nightmarish fashion.

It’s little surprise that this part of the film was a long-time focus of Aster. It has something of a prototype in the form of a short he released years earlier that is effectively a mirror of the film’s first act. Refinement of that is clear in Beau Is Afraid, and as such, it’s one of the year’s strongest opening acts, and undoubtedly Aster’s best one to date.

Nerves are set a-jangling from the off as the relationship between mother and son begins to show its passive-aggressive ugly side. Then it’s small-scale agonizing about what could happen that escalates into the farce of what does happen.

Aster subtly heightens reality as things get worse. There’s some playful twisting of cinematic happenstance when Beau’s things get robbed, the water not working when he’s taken his medicine despite his doctor’s insistence he has to take it with water. That kind of thing. Then it creeps into the surreal without losing any of its anxiety-coated potency.

Beau is essentially a down-on-his-luck Looney Tunes character like Wil E. Coyote who lives in Ari Aster’s world, so instead of anvils falling on his head or cliff edges catching him out, his invasive thoughts are granted life, and the universe that creates seems to single him out for its aggression actively.

Between Aster’s direction and Phoenix’s performance, we get the picture of something that is exquisite in its horrifying reliability. Beau’s mindset and its manifestations are just absurd versions of those encroaching thoughts we all have and have varying levels of anxiety about. ”What are the chances of that actually happening?” may be a common refrain in reassuring someone their fears are unfounded, but here, Aster has displayed Murphy’s law response to that.

You can laugh at the sheer absurdity of what Beau experiences in the closing moments of the act, but the troubling itch of where it stemmed from never really leaves you.

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