Film Review: “The Beaver”

by Jason LeRoy on May 6, 2011

Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson in THE BEAVER

starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones

written by: Kyle Killen

directed by: Jodie Foster

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference.

“People love a trainwreck — as long as it’s not happening to them.” This line, spoken in voiceover narration by Mel Gibson, is one of many elements in The Beaver that uncomfortably mirror Gibson’s own spectacular public flame-out. His ongoing public disgrace hangs heavily over the film, making it nearly impossible to view on its own merits. And while the film at least succeeds in reminding us that Gibson is a gifted actor — which has never really been in question — that is its biggest accomplishment. It is uneven, extremely self-serious, and oddly clinical.

Gibson stars as Walter Black, a man suffering from depression. And we’re talking about serious, certifiable depression here. The debilitating, life-wrecking variety. His depression has isolated him from his long-suffering wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), and his sons, teenage Porter (Anton Yelchin) and young Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). It has also made him a liability at the toy company where he serves as a VP. After the film’s expository prologue, we see Walter leaving his home at Meredith’s request. He buys a bunch of booze and checks himself into a cheap motel room. While throwing some trash into a dumpster, he discovers a beaver puppet, which he picks up out of curiosity and brings back to his room.

Later that night, Walter tries unsuccessfully to kill himself. When he regains consciousness the next morning, he discovers that he can only communicate through the beaver. Not just to others, but even to himself. Walter is still physically speaking through it (in a broad British accent), but is now incapable of speaking as himself. The beaver serves as a deflective shield while the crushed soul within Walter slowly heals and rebuilds. And so, Walter cautiously re-enters his life, armed with the beaver and a typed card explaining that he can only communicate through this “prescription puppet.”

Needless to say, this is quite a bit for his family and colleagues (and the audience) to swallow. It is especially difficult for Porter; this film is just as much his story as his father’s. Porter is a smart, sardonic high school student who earns a healthy profit writing people’s papers for them. He has an uncanny ability to write in other people’s voices, which is what leads cheerleader, imminent valedictorian, and all-around overachiever Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) to approach him. Norah wants Porter to write her valedictorian speech for her, which leads to an unlikely and affecting flirtation.

If nothing else, The Beaver is an acting showcase. Gibson truly gives one of his finest performances as Walter. This is bold, fearless, self-lacerating work. He lets us feel the thick darkness that suffocates Walter, and the thin but vital veneer of safety and respite provided to him by the puppet. Foster, who also directs, is softer than we’ve seen her in quite some time. She powerfully portrays Meredith’s frustrated love and devotion to Walter, her sorrow at his mental illness and her reluctance to give up on him. Yelchin is dependably pitch-perfect as the angry, angsty Porter. And Jennifer Lawrence, who filmed this before her Oscar-nominated work in Winter’s Bone, gives a bruised, luminously sultry standout performance as Norah. It is clear that Lawrence is just a born star.

Unfortunately, the film itself is bizarre and disjointed, with sporadic moments of extreme darkness. The fundamental problem is that we just never care about Walter. We have no reason to care. And despite his performance, the fact that Gibson is playing him actually works against the character. He has to work even harder to win our sympathies, and for me, it just never happened. Once again, I was reminded of Videogum’s “Being White Is Hard!” mockery. Depression and mental illness are obviously real things that don’t discriminate in the people that they infect, but a successful middle-aged white man with a beautiful family isn’t exactly heart-tugging. The film also has an extremely ill-advised subplot in which Walter invents a successful toy inspired by his beaver and briefly becomes a major media star. Major ugh, you guys.

Despite its powerhouse acting, The Beaver works less often than it should. Foster was far more successful directing the story of a dysfunctional family in her underrated Thanksgiving classic, Home For The Holidays. And if you want to see a powerful, near-perfect film about a mentally ill man who projects his dysfunction onto an inanimate object and needs his community to support him until he is well again, then revisit the brilliant Lars and the Real Girl. Or the episode of The Golden Girls when Dorothy’s ex-husband Stan transfers his feelings for her onto a traffic cone with a monkey’s head on it. I’m pretty sure that was in the two-part hurricane episode. Such a classic.

(Also, I would like some credit for not making a single “beaver” joke in this review. I’ve simply typed it too many times to still find it funny.)

Read Also:

Previous post:

Next post: