Why Ari Aster Freaks People Out

The director of the horror films Hereditary, Midsommar, and now Beau Is Afraid invites you into his anxious fantasies.

Ari Aster wearing glasses against a blue background
Victor Llorente / NYT / Redux

The subject of Ari Aster’s new film, Beau Is Afraid, is a living doormat played with shuffling agitation by Joaquin Phoenix. Beau is a 40-something mama’s boy who shudders at the thought of making decisions, and his extreme emotional paralysis is part of the grand joke of the movie, a three-hour epic centered on the least courageous hero imaginable. But immature, anxious cowards are rarely the protagonists of big Hollywood films, and Beau is Aster’s biggest movie by far, as well as one of the most ambitious projects ever mounted by the indie distributor A24. Did Aster worry, I wondered, that audiences wouldn’t be able to identify with such an alienating character?

“That question, it’s never even occurred to me,” Aster told me when we met for lunch in Tribeca. “I just related so intensely to Beau.” His response, it turns out, is the key to understanding Aster’s oeuvre, which includes the horror films Hereditary and Midsommar. Beau fits this genre too, blending surreal frights with arch comedy, antic action, and Freudian melodrama. But although Aster’s movies are often noted for being uniquely disturbing, his stories are perhaps even more distinct for how deeply they mine universal emotions—shame, fear, guilt. Exaggerated though he might be, Beau is a particularly good example of this. “I think everybody sort of feels persecuted, even if that feeling isn’t justified,” Aster said. “My feeling was that he would just be an effective surrogate, because he’s always under fire.”

This core interest in relatability may be why Aster’s features have found success despite bucking norms that business-minded studio execs might impose on an unproven genre director. His debut film, Hereditary, released in 2018, is 127 minutes long; a year later, Aster came out with Midsommar, which runs almost two and a half hours and has a director’s cut that pushes close to three. Nevertheless, they were two of the biggest hits in A24’s history. Both films are remarkable, visually striking, and totally unnerving. But they’re light on jump scares and heavy on interpersonal drama, summoning maximalist, weepy performances from their stars Toni Collette and Florence Pugh—two flawed heroes tormented by circumstances seemingly out of their control.

Beau, a balding galoot who spends most of the movie in a pair of silk pajamas, is similarly put-upon, even though the character seems too innocent to deserve any suffering. Beau Is Afraid follows him as he crosses the country trying to reach his mother, Mona (Patti LuPone), a woman he deeply loves and fears, who has told him that he is unable to have sex because he carries the same genetic condition that killed his father. That cloud of guilt and frustration hangs over him, but en route to Mona, he’s besieged by awful circumstances—apartment thieves steal his luggage, a car accident traps him in a suburban hellscape, a group of teens bully him into doing drugs against his will.

“I think the character knows he did something wrong. He just can’t place it … The guilt is there,” Aster says. “It’s that Josef K. thing, right?” he adds, invoking the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, a similarly passive figure who’s charged with a crime he doesn’t understand and subjected to baffling prosecution. Beau isn’t being pursued by the state, but he is up against the terrifying psyche of a mother whose disappointment in him knows no bounds. Audiences can laugh at the absurd extent of his agita, but we’ve all felt something like it in our own lives.

That same alchemy, whereby extreme narrative circumstances are rendered mundanely relatable, takes place in Hereditary. Annie Graham, played by Collette, is an artist who comes to learn of her family’s entanglement in a demonic cult. For all that Annie is plagued by supernatural forces, the movie is, at the core, just a macabre dramatization of the common fear of not being able to outrun your bloodline and upbringing. And in Midsommar, which Aster has said was inspired by a breakup, a grad student named Dani (Pugh) goes on an anthropological trip with her emotionally cruel boyfriend after weathering a family tragedy. By the end of the movie, her boyfriend has been burned alive, and she’s joined a new family—a twisted bit of revenge that indulges her fantasies of punishing her partner and replacing her lost parents.

There’s always a germ of reality in Aster’s work, no matter the genre. Beau Is Afraid is a story he’s been trying to tell in some form since he graduated from film school, in 2010, but studios balked at its ambition back then. “I didn’t realize how impossible it would have been. There’s a willful ignorance there, where I was like, We’re just going to do it; we’ll just find a way,” Aster told me. “It’s one thing to say that; it’s another thing for somebody to invest in that, you know? So it never moved.” After trying and failing to get a few other difficult-to-categorize films made, he wrote Hereditary. “I thought, Well, I should make a horror film. Because I like the genre, and all my stuff is so dark.”

The heightened world of horror served as an ideal frame for Aster’s mode of storytelling, which favors extremes. In Hereditary, Annie faces one nightmarish incident after another—she loses her daughter in a freak car accident that decapitates her and then realizes that her own mother seeks, from beyond the grave, to use Annie’s son’s body as a vessel for a demon king. The intensity of Hereditary, though, struck me as borderline comical on rewatch, a take Aster heartily agreed with. “For me, a lot of what makes me laugh is just the sadism of Hereditary. [Annie’s daughter’s] head coming off makes me laugh,” he said. “I recognized that the goal is to affect people, but the idea of them being affected by that makes me laugh.”

After the back-to-back productions of Hereditary and Midsommar, two films that Aster said are “very snarled together for me,” the director returned to Beau, a sprawling script he had tinkered with for years. “It’s like an old receptacle for a kind of material that I like to do. I just put a lot of ideas into this thing,” he said. “I hope all [my] movies are kind of funny, but this was the most overt comedy … There’s a lot of me in the film.”

Still, even with the clout he’d gained from the success of his first two movies, Beau Is Afraid was a strange project to pitch. “Originally, the film only functioned as a gag machine,” Aster said. As he revisited the script, he shaped its unusual structure more carefully, crafting a monomythic journey through distinct worlds—a violent cityscape, the cloying suburbs, a secret woodland, and Mona’s impressive home (there’s also an extended flashback set on a cruise ship, and an aggressively macabre epilogue). The film is thus more inspired by picaresque literature than by cinema, with Aster aiming for a plot structure more novelistic than the traditional three-act screenplay.

“One of the things I’m proudest of with the film is the shape. Because there’s times when I watch it and … have just enough objectivity to recognize the weirdness of the structure,” he said. He mentioned authors such as Jorge Luis Borges and Laurence Sterne, and works such as The Aeneid and Don Quixote, but he underlined that Beau lacks any formal allusions to literature: “When I was writing the script, I went back to those books because I love them … [But] my feeling is that I should just shut the fuck up and not talk at all. Just let the movie be what it is.”

Beau also feels nakedly personal, which may fuel Aster’s reluctance to overexplain. The movie stretches the silliest, dirtiest jokes into baroque art-house set pieces and makes a supervillain out of a demanding Jewish mother. “Will [audiences] relate to Mona? Will they find her to be born out of a sort of pettiness? I don’t know,” Aster said. “I wrote the first version of this when I was in my early 20s, and there’s something about me wanting to preserve the spirit of that even in my mid-30s.”

LuPone, a Broadway legend ne plus ultra, understood right away the tone that Aster was going for. “The movie goes full Tennessee Williams when she steps in,” Aster said. Phoenix, who gives the kind of full-body commitment on-screen that won him an Oscar for Joker, also clicked with the filmmaker from the start; Aster said they shared an intensity and a devotion to the film that sometimes confused others. “I think I look miserable on set, and I think that probably goes for Joaquin as well,” Aster said, noting that he’s been criticized for not being enough of a “cheerleader” during production. “There’s a true love of work, and a necessary part of that is not being easily satisfied, because the work is never done. And then a depression sets in when the shoot is over, because it doesn’t feel done, but it’s done. That’s it. The window of opportunity has closed.”

With Hereditary and Midsommar, Aster had initial cuts that ran far longer than the release version, and he struggled to get them to more manageable sizes. “There’s a lot that I learned about my own sense of pacing and my own internal clock … Those films were hard to cut,” he said. “It’s very easy to be precious, especially when it’s one of your first films, because you’re trying to establish some sort of signature.” But with Beau, it’s obvious that Aster feels more secure about the final product. “At three hours, this is the movie I wanted to make,” he said. “On this one, I did keep having, like, the giddy thought of, I can’t believe I’m making this … I’m very grateful that it’s as uncompromised as it is.”

Beau will fuel very polarized reactions: Its limited release has already generated discourse, and A24 is preparing for a wide release that includes screenings in IMAX—a rarity for an indie project. Some moviegoers will likely storm out demanding a refund; others may well go back for more, and Aster hopes they do. “I tried to bury a lot of things into it that are there to be sought out,” he said. For all the anxiety he summons to the screen, and as much as he relates to Beau, he seemed fairly untroubled by the thought of how his third film will be received: “I’m still learning. For me, the films are getting stronger.”