Ari Aster Isn't Surprised by the Mixed Response to 'Beau Is Afraid': "I'm Not Going to Compromise"

"We knew that [the film] was going to be alienating to certain people. But our feeling was, this is also going to be thrilling to some people."

Photo courtesy of A24

BY Marie SaadehPublished Apr 21, 2023

When Ari Aster was working on his first two features, 2018's Hereditary and 2019's Midsommar, something even bigger was brewing. In fact, his third film, Beau Is Afraid, had been in the works years before he became a household name (at least among film nerds and horror aficionados). The long incubation period is evident throughout the movie: Beau Is Afraid is an unrelenting ride through Ari Aster's disturbed imagination.

The film sees Joaquin Phoenix as Beau Wasserman, a 50-something who is drowning in mommy issues and anxiety. As the title suggests, Beau is always afraid, and for seemingly good reasons. When he learns that his mother has died after he missed his flight home to visit her, he has to leave his apartment on a nightmarish city block to get to her. 

Beau Is Afraid follows Beau's guilt-ridden Oedipal journey through city, suburbia and forest — and even an animated sequence — to try to get to his mother's funeral on time while witnessing pretty much every manifestation of anxiety imaginable. Beau remains steadily on the verge of — or, rather, in the middle of — a breakdown as chaos erupts time and time again. Each time he's faced with something grotesque and overwhelming, his response remains pretty consistent: he's shocked and completely wigged out — and oh boy does he ever feel guilty about it all.

"When I first started writing, it was about a guy who believes that everything is conspiring against him; and he's right. He walks into a room nervous about things going wrong in one of 10 ways, and then it goes wrong in the 11th way," Aster tells Exclaim! ahead of the film's Montreal premiere. "If anything, that was something I had to move [away from], because I [was] hitting the same button over and over again. I tried to go deeper into what that would mean, or what the impetus of that is or might be."

Beau Is Afraid is born out of Aster and Phoenix's first collaboration, and though not much of the script changed with Phoenix's involvement, Aster says the actor brought a significant perspective to the authenticity of Beau's character that developed into what we see in the final cut.

"Every scene was re-challenged in a new way [with Phoenix's input]. It was very important that Beau be real and that he be grounded, because the world [of the film] is so heightened," Aster explains. "He's our surrogate and the only thing keeping us tethered to anything. It was really just about us going into each scene and asking [Phoenix], 'What is true here? What would be the honest way of responding to this crazy thing?'"

Aster continues, "But it's difficult, because Beau belongs to this movie. There were moments where the behaviour needed to be heightened and strange, where we suddenly would be pulled away from him or brought back towards him."

The three-hour runtime is packed with what Aster describes as an "endless journey," a film that's "by design long and exhausting," and he's well aware that it's not for everyone.

"We knew that [the film] was going to be alienating to certain people," recalls Aster. "But our feeling was, this is also going to be thrilling to some people, and we need to trust that it's going to thrill enough people."

And he was right, since the response to the film has been mixed since its release. A scroll through Twitter and Rotten Tomatoes will find polarizing responses from audiences and critics alike. And that's no surprise: the film is intense and contains plenty of slapstick elements that some might feel doesn't warrant the lengthy runtime.

Even Aster never expected that a film with such ambitious world-building and excess would have been put into production. But A24 gave Aster a vote of confidence when they granted Beau Is Afraid their biggest budget yet — over triple that of his first features produced by the same company. It's an opportunity he earned after giving the studio two of their highest grossing films to date.

"I decided I'm not going to compromise on this one because it's already its own thing and I'm just going to be really true to this," Aster says. "It's my way of thanking A24, the people who gave me the resources to make it, because they didn't force me to change anything. In the end, I think they loved the movie. They understood that the film was what it was and gave it a lot of support."

Beau Is Afraid represents a departure for Aster where, unlike his two earlier films, both pure horrors, this one is a comedy that's arguably more disturbing. It's clear that Aster indulged while creating Beau's world from the amount of comedic detail he inserts into the film — favourites of the director include the K-Pop posters in a teen's bedroom and the clever billboards in the city background, to name a couple — but finding the right balance in tone was important.

"I don't think there's a single scene in the film that isn't, on some level, funny to me," Aster shares. "If anything, I wanted to inject more and more sadness as I went back to it.  [A scene would be] funny, [but] underneath there's a cruelty to the humour and maybe a sadness, too. But the sadness is kind of true, and I want to underscore that."

Of everything he accomplished with Beau Is Afraid, and after years of buildup, what is Aster most proud of about the film?

"I'm proudest of the shape of the film," he reflects. "It took a long time to arrive at that shape, and I'm very happy with it. I think that, if people return to it, if they have the patience or the interest to return to it, things might start to connect [in a way] that maybe [they] wouldn't have on the first viewing."

Despite the polarized response, Aster seems eager to keep pushing expectations. He's reported to be working on an upcoming Western-noir comedy with Phoenix, and we can only imagine where the pair's next collaboration will take us. It's clear, though, that with Beau Is Afraid, Aster is shifting into new territory amid the incredible success he's experienced so far.

Somehow, it feels like the director is only just beginning.

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