Middle-aged Beau Wasserman lives in a nightmare. To be more accurate, he lives in several nightmares, some of them in succession, some layered atop one another like an onion of misery. Beau is a man who is haunted: by images of overflowing bathtubs, by visions of choppy water, by memories of an unconventionally abusive childhood, by the gap in his life where his father should be, by the ever-present preoccupation with the possibility of death imposed upon him by congenital health issues, and by a thousand other intangible things that aren’t immediate threats but which nevertheless ostensibly guide him through his choices, moment by moment, day after day. Beau is also a man who is endangered, not by those things which haunt him, but by real menaces that confront him on a daily basis. His neighborhood is parodically dangerous, as if the entire area is the product of a fever dream of someone whose brain was rotted by conservative cable news fabrications about hellish city life. Just going home from his appointment with his therapist requires Beau to start sprinting down his street from blocks away so that he can get into his building and lock the door behind him before a menacing vagrant can chase him down; not in the abstract, either, as he’s actually racing against his attacker. There’s no real order or authority in the world; a dangerous nude murderer wanders the streets, there are men gouging each others’ eyes out between Beau’s building and the Cheapo Depot across the street, and there are automatic weapons being sold on the street with abandon. His home itself provides little comfort, as there is a known brown recluse in the building and he spends the entire night receiving increasingly threatening notes slipped under his door in regards to an increasingly loud sound system that does not exist. Beau is afraid, and he has every reason to be, but things really only get worse for him from here.
Beau is Afraid is almost a picaresque. In fact, it opens almost exactly the same way that one of the foremost examples of the genre, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, does: with the protagonist’s birth. However, unlike Tristram (or Candide, or Huckleberry Finn), there’s not much appealing about Beau. He’s not roguish, or courageous, or even much of an active player in his own life. A series of horrible things happen to him and his only option, over and over again, is to run, because he has no defense against the things that haunt or endanger him. In each of these vignettes, things seem to be taking a turn for the better for Beau before deflating every potential chance for his luck to improve. He’s hit by a car, then nursed back to health by kind strangers, then that situation falls apart because of the impulsive actions of the family’s youngest child and he is pursued into the forest by a shell-shocked veteran, then he’s found by a woman who’s part of a traveling forest theatre troupe which performs a play that transports him on an emotional journey by playing out this hope-to-despair cycle in miniature, then the performance is disrupted by a spree killing, and so on.
In the first scene following the opening P.O.V. birth sequence, Beau’s therapist asks Beau if he would return to a well that made him sick the next time that he was thirsty. This is a film with nigh-constant imagery of water, in its abundance and in its absence, and in the film’s first (of many, many) acts, we the audience are introduced to the arc words “always with water,” which is Beau’s therapist’s warning to him about his new prescription. Beau is adrift on that water (literally, by the end); he bobs in it and he is pushed by its motion as it surges and recedes like waves, and he is never in control. Beau’s journey truly begins when he is forced to leave his building to cross the street for a bottle of water in order to finish taking his pills because the water in his apartment is out. Because of circumstances beyond his control, he has to leave his building and apartment open in order to get back in once he does so, which results in his home being invaded and destroyed. After getting back inside, he immediately receives terrible news, resulting in his bathtub overflowing even before he can get in.
This absence-to-abundance-to-absence imagery cycle is obviously no accident. Between the opening horror show that is Beau’s everyday life and the next vignette (which is at first hopeful and then violently terrifying, another cycle to be prepared for in this narrative), he flashes back to a childhood cruise that he took with his mother and on which he met his first and only love, Elaine. In all of these sequences, however, there’s one thing that we never see: the ocean. Characters dine above deck, sunbathe above deck, and take walks in the moonlight, but for the audience, all of this is happening against a backdrop of sky alone, as if in a void. In his dreams, Beau is in a bathtub (one that overflows, naturally, in abundance), watching a braver version of himself standing up to his mother and being punished for it by being sent into the attic. When he is being cared for by Grace and Roger, great attention is paid to the fact that he is given water in the monogrammed cup which belonged to their son, who was killed in action overseas. When he finds the actors in the woods, we see water pour over a point-of-view shot from Beau’s perspective as a fresh head wound is tended, and in the sequence in which the drugged, concussed Beau becomes the character on the stage who builds a life that is completely destroyed by a flood. In the end, Beau meets his destiny on the water, sailing out to face judgment for his supposed sins. The waves go forth and they retract, and a buoy rises and falls, and through it all, Beau has no agency in what moves him.
This absence and abundance is everywhere. When Beau is taken in to be cared for by Grace and Roger, he is put in their teen daughter’s room, where she has posters for various K-pop acts and similar-to-but-legally-distinct-from Marvel “grrl power” pin-ups on her walls. With regards to the former, she has posters both for a solo artist named Only1 and a gigantic boy band called KI55, as a reference to the number of members, all of whom are crammed onto the same poster in quarter-sized photos. I’m sure that there are many more that I’m missing or didn’t pick up on, because this film is dense, and for someone like me who loves details and puzzle pieces, there’s a lot happening. Much criticism has been directed at the film with regards to its length, but I only felt its runtime in my bladder, not in my attention. With that said, I’m not at all surprised that this movie hasn’t been to everyone’s liking.
Beau is Afraid largely concerns itself with guilt, but it isn’t titled Beau is Guilty because Beau isn’t guilty, he is simply made to feel guilt. His therapist projects guilt onto him, his mother’s lawyer lays a guilt trip on him for his worthlessness, and his mother herself, in flashbacks and in the present, manipulates him over and over again and then pelts him with guilt when he reacts in just the way she has set him up to. Before we see her in flashbacks or the present—when she’s no more than a voice on the phone—we see that Beau has one photo of each parent; his father is a blur, his snapshot taken while he was moving, so that there’s no clear image of his face at all, and in the photo of his mother, she is holding him as a newborn, his bald head in the foreground, but instead of a gentle hand supporting his wobbly noggin, her long, pointed nails create an image of her son trapped in her claw like prey, which is all that he ever is. There’s even the implication that everything that he has suffered (or at least large parts of it) are the result of her machinations, given that there’s a photomosaic of her face at her home that is composed of her employees’ staff photos, and it includes a character who appeared earlier as a good samaritan Beau encountered. This isn’t the kind of movie that “makes sense” in the traditional way, as it’s a surreal fantasy that’s not supposed to be treated as a straightforward, rational narrative, so even when the film implies Beau’s mother has been acting behind the scenes, we’re still then treated to the revelation of who (or more accurately what) Beau’s father is, in a way that defies any attempt to rationalize what’s happened to Beau as being merely a protracted trial to demonstrate his love for his mother.
There are two major touchpoints that the film reminded me of: mother! and Marie NDiaye’s 2007 novel Mon Cœur à l’étroit. In the case of the latter, there is a scene in the film’s first act in which Beau, unable to return to his apartment, climbs the scaffolding outside of the building and is forced to watch as his home is ransacked and destroyed, which was reminiscent of the scene in Darren Aronofsky’s film where the titular character is running from room to room, unable to stop her husband’s unruly party guests from destroying her meticulously planned and curated home. That sense of helplessness and desperation that you feel when empathizing with Jennifer Lawrence’s character in that movie is present here as well; everything in this movie is happening to Beau, as he has no choice but to continue to be compelled forward by the motion of the sea on which he is adrift, the tide carrying him to an unjust damnation. Mon Cœur à l’étroit, which was translated into English as My Heart Hemmed In in 2017, is about a woman who awakens one morning to the sudden realization that she is hated by everyone around her. Where Beau most resembles it is in the way that people interact with him. The protagonist of the novel, Nadia, is confused by all of her neighbors’ and friends’ sudden antipathy toward her, which is only further agitated by the fact that, when she confronts them, they all start to voice an accusation that trails off without providing any real information. This happens to Beau as well, as the people he encounters continuously approach him with variations on “You know what you did” and leave notes for him to find that say “Stop implicating yourself.” How much his mother was influencing things (not to mention how much that matters to the reading of the text, really) is up for debate; how much Mona Wasserman shaped her son’s reality is less important than how she shaped his perception of reality, which was … a lot. He can only perceive reality through the lens of guilt, both when she’s gaslighting him directly and when she’s gaslighting him by proxy through the way her abuse has shaped his brain so that he induces it in himself.
Like Mon Cœur à l’étroit, mother!, and Tristram Shandy for that matter, Beau is Afraid will not be for everyone. It’s been pretty divisive, and I’m not surprised. Between the length of the movie, some detours into the kind of wacky ground that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie by The Daniels, and mainstream American audiences’ overall aversion to anything too complicated to be half-watched while you fart around on your phone, there are sure to be plenty of people who find this one off-putting, not fun, and too strange to enjoy, but I’m not one of them.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond