In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Beau is Afraid, we will explain the film’s ending.
- Beau Wassermann – Joaquin Phoenix
- Mona Wassermann – Patti LuPone
- Therapist – Stephen McKinley Henderson
- Roger – Nathan Lane
- Grace – Amy Ryan
- Toni – Kylie Rogers
- Jeeves – Denis Ménochet
- Elaine – Parker Posey
- Penelope – Hayley Squires
- Dr. Cohen – Richard Kind
- Written by – Ari Aster
- Directed by – Ari Aster
The end of Beau is Afraid explained
The end of Beau is Afraid begins after a confrontation with Beau’s mom. She locks him in an attic, where he discovers a long lost brother and a father that is a giant, monstrous penis. Jeeves, the troubled soldier living with Grace and Roger, breaks into the attic, having tracked Beau, with the intent to kill. Beau’s father, using a sickle-like arm, impales Jeeves through the head.
Escaping the attic, Beau re-confronts his mother. The back and forth results in him strangling Mona. When he lets go, she stumbles, then collapses through a glass cabinet. Beau, horrified, flees the mansion, finds a boat upon a lake, then ships out. It’s night. Stars dominate the sky. He approaches a rocky cove and enters a cave. The cave suddenly reveals itself to be a Sea World like arena where you’d expect to see Shamu, the whale. Instead, it’s Beau, still in the boat. A large audience looks on. On a balcony, Beau sees his mother and Dr. Cohen. Dr. Cohen serves as the prosecuting lawyer, arguing that Beau has committed crimes against his mother.
Beau has a low-level, court-appointed defense attorney that struggles to counter anything Dr. Cohen says. It isn’t long before a goon employed by Mona removes the defense attorney. Without an advocate, Beau’s overwhelmed. His mother won’t hear anything he has to say. In fact, she’s angry at Beau for arguing back. So Beau stops fighting. His boat explodes. It and Beau flip. For a few seconds, we hear Beau. Then it’s quiet.
Mona and Dr. Cohen leave. The arena slowly clears out. The upside down boat floats on.
There’s a lot to unpack.
First and foremost, people might wonder if Beau dies. Probably. Whether he’s actually killed in or by the explosion doesn’t really matter. The fact is, he gave up. His mother broke him. So even if he survived and is in the water, he will, at some point, accept sinking.
There’s also the argument of whether or not the trial even happened. Even though Beau is Afraid had a lot of surreal aspects, they were almost always hyperbolic rather than fantastic. Like the entire city section is absurd and likely would never happen but it’s not impossible people would act that way. Same with Grace, Roger, Toni, and Jeeves. Absurd but not impossible. Same with Elaine dying after orgasm. But Beau’s father being an enormous humanoid monster penis is both absurd and impossible. Same with the cave transforming from a cave to an arena with an audience and Mona somehow already there.
Practically, it doesn’t change much if these things are real or not. Because the result is the same: Beau feels such guilt and grief at the final events with his mother that he loses the will to live. The trial can be literal or metaphoric, something Beau’s going through internally. Either way, he ends up “in the water”. If we’re looking at it realistically, then it’s likely Beau strangled Mona, rowed out on the sea, judged himself for what happened, and decided to abandon ship, so to speak.
Then with his father’s identity. Maybe it’s the giant monster. Or, you can view it as a metaphor for negative things Mona may have revealed about his father, rather than the mythology she had used for so long. Beau, despite the negatives, still imagines that his dad could have protected him from dangers (like Jeeves). Either way, he understands he can never have a relationship with his father.
So don’t concern yourself too much with what’s real or what isn’t. It doesn’t affect Beau’s outcome. What’s important is what these events represent for the character.
In Hereditary, Ari Aster looked at how parents affect the mental health of their children. Whether that’s genetic impact, like passing along bipolar disorder, or the situational impact of causing stress, grief, and other mental and emotional anguish.
In Midsommar, Aster dives into how someone copes with losing their parents. The void that opens and what fills it.
Beau is Afraid is a bit of a combination of and extension beyond these earlier concepts. Beau is the byproduct of his mom’s conditional love. It rendered him self-limiting in many ways. He second-guesses every action because he’s constantly afraid of disappointing. It’s very clear that if his mom hadn’t been around, or had been a better person, that Beau may have been a better person.
The brief confirmation of this comes in the form of Elaine. When Beau was a teenager, on a cruise with his mother, he met Elaine. It was a time where he still had his future ahead of him, where he was still a bit molten and not yet set in his personality. Elaine was his first kiss. His first love. And was supposed to be his first sexual partner. All these years later, he meets Elaine, once again. She’s been an employee at Mona’s company and came late for the funeral. She and Beau pick up where they left off and sleep together.
If intercourse is a rite of passage to adulthood, then it’s meaningful that Beau had been, up to that point, a virgin. It solidified his arrested development. Something Mona had ensured when she told Beau that his father’s side of the family had a genetic defect where they die upon orgasm. That means Beau has spent his entire life without once experiencing an orgasm, much less intercourse. To finally do that is a huge deal. But by sleeping with Elaine, Beau realizes his mom lied to him. And how much that lie robbed him of. Not just the superficial joy of physical pleasure. But the quality of relationship with his own body. For decades, Beau believed his body was a timebomb, ready to betray him if he ever experienced physical pleasure. So he’s been in this constant state of self-denial and self-rejection and self-limitation that’s left him so at odds with not just himself but the world around him. It all starts to feel like a threat.
The tragedy of Beau is Afraid is that Beau didn’t have to be how he is. And, for a moment, it seems like maybe, with his mom’s demise and Elaine’s return, that Beau could have, at this late stage, something resembling a life. Only for Elaine to die upon orgasm and his mother to appear and admit she faked her own death. All that sense of potential goes right out the window.
What’s interesting is that Aster goes beyond this first dimension of parents and children. To a lesser extent, he did this in Midsommar. He moved the main character from her normal world somewhere in the United States to a cult in Sweden that emphasized the collective over the individual. That choice created an important theme about culture and the way in which culture can heal and harm. But the dynamic was explored more through exposition than the actual events in Midsommar, making it essentially a thesis statement rather than a full-on artistic survey.
In Beau is Afraid, Aster transitions Beau from city, to suburb, to Beau’s childhood home. Each setting is very different, with unique demands, pitfalls, and opportunities. But what they all have in common is they shape the people within them. What they can do. Who they can be. Their quality of life and the quality of people in their life.
In the city, it’s chaos and mayhem. Society has devolved. The ugliest aspects of human nature dominate. Anger, paranoia, violence, poor communication, stupidity, selfishness, etc. People are cruel to one another. And we see how isolated Beau is. How afraid he is. Everything is ugly. It’s all Beau can do to survive.
In the suburbs, Beau’s in the home of Roger and Grace. It’s a dramatic contrast to the city. Everything is clean. Quiet. Nice. Roger and Grace are caring, kind, compassionate. For a brief bit, it seems like Beau has caught a lucky break. Except we soon realize that Grace and Roger are more performative than truly good people. They’re plagued by grief over the loss of their son in the war. And paid by Mona to take care of Beau. Toni, Roger and Grace’s daughter, is the byproduct of this household. She’s furious that her parents put their deceased son on a pedestal and treat her as the lesser child. So she acts out. It’s far more disguised than the behavior of people in the city but it’s still brutal and dehumanizing. To get back at her parents, Toni drinks paint until she dies in her brother’s museum-like room.
At Beau’s childhood home, we learn more about the ways in which Mona raised Beau. Her manipulations and judgments. Her lies and abuses. He is a byproduct of that environment. Just like Toni was a byproduct of the ecosystem created by Roger and Grace. Just like the state of the city was an ecosystem created by the city’s government.
Through showing rather than telling, Aster relates parents and children to society and its citizens. And makes the statement that the same way parents affect the future of their children, society affects the future of its citizens. That’s why Beau is Afraid doesn’t end with the private confrontation between Beau and Mona, but, instead, the ultimate, Kafkaesque trial in an arena in front of an audience. It dovetails parents and society, the private and the public. It’s not just Mona judging Beau. It’s society, too. Which extends to the idea that Mona wasn’t alone in being responsible for Beau’s fate. Society was too. Both Mona and society failed him.
The only time Beau’s in a setting where he’s encouraged, empowered, treated well, and can imagine a better life is when he’s in the forest, with the traveling theater, away from “established” worlds like a city, the home of strangers, or his mother. That world comes to a terrible end when Jeeves, a representative of the established world, charges in and slaughters dozens of people.
When Beau’s in already defined worlds, he’s so busy worrying that he has no bandwidth to dream or hope or be creative. But in the woods, a location that’s undetermined, wild, free, full of potential—Beau experiences that long dream sequence where he lives this other life where he has a wife and kids, and it’s still full of struggles but there’s a joy he’s never been able to experience. It’s not a coincidence that the theater troupe is called The Orphans of the Forest. The idea of being an orphan, of being disconnected from your parents, of being disconnected from society, gets at the idea of being free from the potential negative influences of parents and society and allowed to be closer to your natural, unhindered self.
What’s it all mean
The implication of Beau is Afraid is how vulnerable and dependent people are on the greater influences of parents and society. When you’re a kid, it’s your parents and the microcosm they create. When you’re an adult, it’s where you exist and the microcosm of that community. If you have bad parents as a kid, it’s still possible to end up in a place that encourages and inspires and supports you. If you have great parents, it’s still possible to end up in a place that limits you or even destroys you. We can’t necessarily control who our parents are and how they raise us. But we do control where we are.
Beau is an example of someone who is so passive that he allows these influences to lead him to destruction. His fear limits both the duration and quality of his life. And to a certain extent, that’s true for every person. Some of us handle our fears better than others. But no one is without fear. Everyone has been limited by fear. Someone could have a billion dollars and never experience the joy of riding a roller coaster. Or they could have a billion dollars and no close friends, family, or a loving partner. Someone could have a loving partner, friends, and family but limited income because self-doubt has limited their career choices. Fear of the unknown might keep someone with all the capacity in the world from ever leaving their hometown.
Most of us fight our fear. Beau is Afraid shows us what happens when we don’t fight. When we let the fear win. So even though it’s a very, very negative movie, it’s also quite inspiring. The negative example reminds us of what we shouldn’t do. Of who we shouldn’t be. The less you are like Beau, the better. Even if that’s with small victories, one day at a time. Find a place that empowers you. Find people who empower you. Be that person for others. You can be afraid. But be brave, too.
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