This article contains WILD Beau Is Afraid spoilers.
When we chatted with actor Nathan Lane about Beau Is Afraid a few weeks ago, the stage and screen legend confided to us an undeniable truth: “Only Ari and his therapist could tell you exactly what [the movie’s] about.”
While Lane did not divulge which scene he was most explicitly referring to, we imagine the sequence where the titular, cowardly Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) confronts a 12-foot tall penis monster with fangs and a grumpy disposition in an attic was at the top of the list.
For those who need a refresher (or just a basic understanding) of how that weirdness went down, the moment occurs after Beau at last confronts his mother (Patty LuPone) about a lifetime of neuroses and anxieties that he blames on her. Given the character is pushing 50, LuPone’s Mona is not remiss in suggesting her son take a little goddamn self-responsibility for his foibles. However, she also convinced him for his entire life that if he ever had sex (or simply ejaculated) that he would die, which must count for something. She was able to implant this fiction into little Beau’s head by telling him that his father and paternal grandfather both died the moment they climaxed the first time, each conceiving their own progeny in the process.
Yet during Beau’s odyssey of misadventures on coming home, he begins to realize the incredulity of this story and seems to think he actually even met his real father, an old man who confesses to taking Mona’s hush money, at a hippie commune’s outdoor theater. And of course he then does finally have sex with childhood crush Elaine (Parker Posey) and lives to tell the tale. So between this and revealing to Mona his recurring dream where, in an out-of-body experience, he sees himself being locked in an attic for talking back, Mona seems to put all the cards on the table: You want the truth, tough guy here it is.
According to Mona, it’s not a dream where he’s floating outside his body; it’s a repressed memory about his twin brother who Mona has left to rot in that attic for the last 40 years! Additionally, she keeps his real father up there too! And Daddy, as it turns out, is an attic monster that is literally all cock and balls!!! Well that, plus a face and some surprisingly strong arms.
When she locks adult Beau up there as well, he sees a withered doppelgänger of himself chained to the floor and the hideous cock monster who surely must be real because at that exact moment, Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), the war veteran who’s been hunting Beau for Grace (Amy Ryan), crashes through the window with a gun. Before Jeeves can finally murder Beau, however, the cockian creature does battle with his son’s pursuer, and ultimately crushes Jeeves’ head in like a grape!
As one acquaintance asked after seeing the movie, “What in the actual fuck?”
This is of course writer-director Ari Aster’s intention, leaving audiences to brew and wonder about the surrealist spectacle they just witnessed, including the larger metaphorical ending where Beau enters a cave and appears to be judged by everyone he’s ever met (including his now-deceased mother) and is found so wanting that he’s condemned to drown in a watery grave.
We unpacked here what the larger ending (and other themes) of the movie mean, but to boil it down to just the Cock Monster of it all, it is worth approaching the sequence as Beau’s (or Aster’s) therapist would.
If the entire film is an exercise in placing the viewer inside the feelings of someone suffering from crippling anxiety, then nothing we see should be taken literally. While Beau is likely an extremely anxious man who is terrified of his neighborhood in New York City, it doesn’t mean a famous serial killer is just standing butt-ass naked in the street outside his front door, waiting for Beau to come out so he can slice up a Beau-meat sandwich.
Similarly, let’s not worry so much if there is a cycloptic penis in Mona’s attic and consider what that means to Beau. All his life, Beau has been afraid, and it goes back to that original fear of dying like the father he never knew. After all, the only thing Mona ever told him about Papa was how he died giving her the one thing she wanted most in the world: a child.
While this is obviously a lie, the effect is to make Beau scared of intimacy. It creates a fear of sex and women, and perhaps even a disgust of his own male sexuality. The speeches of Young Mona (Zoe Lister-Jones) to Beau allude to a general distaste for men and presumably male anatomy itself. She saw copulation simply as a means to an end for procuring a child who she could raise in her own fabulous image (or so she hoped).
To her severe disappointment, however, she conditioned her son to be afraid of his own shadow, as well as his physiology, to the point where the idea of sex or masturbation seemed fatal. Beau has suffered from 50 years of pent up sexual frustration and self-denial.
Mona may have wanted a strapping, dashing son, but she instead cultivated a feeble and helpless neurotic. The side of Beau that could be self-realized—a son who could talk back to her when she was being needlessly cruel—was thus locked away inside of Beau to wither and fade from an early age. That is the “twin brother” Beau imagines is chained in the attic. And the monstrous penis? It is his own sexuality that he is so fearful of. After decades of lonely denial, it’s taken on the shape of a Universal movie monster that’s a danger to himself and others—indeed, after Beau realizes having sex won’t kill him, he imagines then it must have caused Elaine’s heart to stop! So why not slaughter the nasty Jeeves too?
The attic scene is a metaphor for the man Beau never became, and the root of the anxiety that caused this. After all this time, the source phobia has taken on the visage of something harmful and deranged. Is there actually anything up in Mona’s attic? Probably not. In which case, it is a question of whether anything killed Jeeves at all or, indeed, if Jeeves even existed or at least pursued Beau. Yes, we see Beau barely dodge Jeeves’ gunfire at the hippie dinner theater, but that was moments after the play caused Beau to hallucinate he was an Odyseus-modeled hero who would have decades of adventures, resulting in three strapping sons he loved dearly. Of course, how could he have sons if he is terrified of sex?
Beau’s inability to differentiate this delusion from reality (for a time) should cause you to doubt that he actually met a man in the same scene who claimed to be his father, or that he then would be attacked by a hail of gunfire moments later. I might argue that the play triggered in Beau the realization that his father was not dead, and his mother had been lying to him, hence the imaginary meeting with Dad. Meanwhile his fear of a relentless gunman may be a byproduct of still being spooked by the creepy vibes Jeeves gave off when Beau was in the home of Grace and Roger (Lane).
But trying to unpack reality from delusion in this movie runs the risk of thinking too literally. The film isn’t about reality; it’s about living within the feeling of anxiety, and understanding where it might come from. For Beau, it’s due to a toxic childhood where his relationship with Mommy was so twisted that it manifests itself as a Freudian monster in the attic.
Beau Is Afraid is in theaters now.