Mel Gibson Delivers in Jodie Foster’s Daring ‘The Beaver’

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Rating: 4.0/5.0

CHICAGO – What does it take to crawl out of a hole so deep that you can no longer see the sky? For some people, depression isn’t just a bad mood or an off day, it is as debilitating as a disease, and it can kill. One such man is Walter Black (Mel Gibson), and the unusual way that he survives his affliction is chronicled in the fascinating, memorable, accomplished “The Beaver.”

First and foremost, don’t let the controversy around Mel Gibson’s personal life impact the way you approach “The Beaver.” Of course, watching a fictional character battle serious personal demons knowing the actor who plays that character also has a few issues of his own adds an unintentional layer to the film but “The Beaver” would be a strong piece of dramatic work regardless of the tabloid coverage of its star. This is a daring drama, a true risk for everyone involved that pays off with an emotionally rewarding piece about mental illness, family ties, and turning points.

The Beaver
The Beaver
Photo credit: Summit Pictures

It would be easy to falsely label “The Beaver” purely based on its title. Avoid critics who want to reduce the film to “the movie where Mel Gibson talks to his hand.” A surprising number of people have refused to look deeper to see that this is a story not solely about its title character. This is a tale of two men at turning points — one older one questioning whether or not he has the strength to go on and one younger one who has long desired to break completely from his family. With incredibly strong performances throughout and complex tone management by its multi-talented director, “The Beaver” is one of the most interesting and most rewarding films of the year to date.

Gibson stars as Walter Black, a man in such a deep pit of depression that it has completely torn his life apart. He does nothing but sleep and cry. His family has tried for years to save him but they have realized that they must cut ties in order to save their own sanity. As the film opens, his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) has kicked him out of the home. His youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) has turned quiet while his oldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) spends time keeping track of the commonalities between he and his father that he hopes to eradicate before leaving for good.

From this set-up, Kyle Killen’s script for “The Beaver” essentially tells two intertwining stories. Walter tries to kill himself one night but fails. He awakens to what feels almost like a dream state in which he speaks to a stuffed beaver that he found in a dumpster earlier that evening. The beaver has a voice with an accent not unlike Ray Winstone (one wonders if Gibson didn’t refine it working with Ray on “Edge of Darkness”) but the words come from Walter’s mouth. Through the stuffed puppet, Walter expresses things he never could, almost serving as a split personality that pushes him back to the surface of normalcy. He becomes closer to his wife and his young son, but Porter remains distant.

The Beaver
The Beaver
Photo credit: Summit Pictures

Meanwhile, Porter spends his days writing papers for classmates for money. When the stunning valedictorian Norah (Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence of “Winter’s Bone”) asks him to write her speech, Porter becomes closer to the prettiest girl in school. As romance blooms between the two people who would seem to be from different sides of the tracks, they realize they both have family issues yet to be reconciled.

Both Yelchin and Lawrence are excellent, as is Foster, but this is Gibson’s movie. He is stunningly good and has arguably never been better. And the strength of the performance is in the subtle moments, not in the broader ones. The puppet stuff is good, but it’s when the beaver stops talking and we can see Walter’s wheels turning, his emotions shifting and changing, that Gibson truly shines. It’s in the way he can’t make eye contact when the beaver isn’t talking or how he stares off into the distance as if his soul has been crushed. There have been many portrayals of depression in film. This is one of the best.

The Beaver
The Beaver
Photo credit: Summit Pictures

And Foster’s subtle direction of a very complex piece tonally should be applauded. “The Beaver” could have been broad farce or depressing melodrama. It is neither. It balances the ridiculousness of its central concept by grounding the actions of its characters in realism. Foster turns out to have been the perfect fit, as she clearly valued telling a genuine story of human relations above anything else.

There are elements of Killen’s final act that bother me a little bit. Without spoiling anything, Walter’s stuffed crutch becomes a major part of his work life and that part of the story doesn’t feel quite right or even necessary. I was way more interested in his home life. And Killen somewhat writes himself into a corner with a story that can’t be wrapped up in a neat little box but that needs something of an optimistic ending to warrant the viewer’s time. He only half delivers on the ending.

Summer is a season all about audience expectations — We go into films like “Thor” or “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” knowing, for the most part, what to expect. Here’s a film that challenges your expectations. It challenges what you think of its star and how far you’re willing to go emotionally with a film about a man talking to his hand. Go with it. You’ll be happy that you did.

“The Beaver” stars Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Riley Thomas Stewart, Cherry Jones, Anton Yelchin, and Jennifer Lawrence. It was written by Kyle Killen and directed by Foster. It opens in Chicago on May 6th, 2011 and is rated PG-13. content director Brian Tallerico

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