We’ve covered this before: whether a movie is good, bad or shrouded in controversy, if it’s made with sincerity it can’t be denied. The Beaver is such a movie. I’m not convinced of its psychological veracity, nor is it easy to separate the film’s story – of a man losing his mind and gaining notoriety for it – from the real life ramblings of its star, Mel Gibson. But director Jodie Foster, in her first directorial outing since 1995’s Home for the Holidays, sure seems to believe in the material. It’s difficult to turn someone down who’s baring his or her soul before you, but if they’re expressing it in a film as strong and heartwarming as The Beaver it’s not necessary. Put your prejudices aside, because you’re about to be touched by The Beaver.
Walter Black has a problem. He suffers from crippling depression, and to his credit has tried every possible thing to overcome his debilitation: therapy, drugs, retreats… you name it. After years of anguish the toll has been taken on his family: his eldest son Porter (Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin) catalogues his every similarity to Walter in an attempt to become a different person, his youngest son (90210’s Riley Thomas Stewart) has receded into such invisibility that his own mother can’t even pick him out of a crowd, and his wife (Foster) loves him dearly but just can’t take it anymore. She kicks him out of the house and Walter promptly attempts, and fails, to commit suicide. And that’s when he starts talking to a beaver.
It’s unclear for much of the film whether Walter’s personality has completely fractured or if he’s just committed to his own form of self-therapy, but he starts talking to his family and co-workers through a beaver-shaped hand puppet he found in a dumpster. It soon becomes clear that Walter, whoever that is, is a kind, loving and inspired individual who can interact with his kids, make love to his wife and even succeed in the business world like no other, but only through someone else’s voice. And yet in bifurcating his positive and negative qualities Walter recedes even further into despair. The Beaver takes over his life, for better and worse, and the ‘real’ Walter languishes in misery like never before, only now he never has to bother anyone he loves with it. It’s that isolation, The Beaver seems to say, that’s more dangerous than any torment Walter had suffered before.
I’m no psychologist. I don’t know if the film’s take on depression and mania has any basis in fact, but through a warm, loving script by Kyle Killen and the sympathetic direction of Jodie Foster, it feels right. The upswings and downfall of Walter Black are believable and touching and most importantly very funny, and the travails of his son Porter come across as mostly genuine, even if they mine familiar high school territory of plagiarism, valedictorian speeches, expressing yourself and falling for the head cheerleader, played by Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence. Porter’s subplots don’t bring the movie down, but it feels like the filmmakers may have had a little less investment in his story than Walter’s, whose hardships are more distinctive than most other movie protagonists’.
But then there’s the Mel Gibson thing. The Beaver reminds you of why Mel Gibson became a star in the first place. His charms are evident, but the lines on his downtrodden face reveal genuine pain behind them. But as Walter’s psychological torment becomes publicized, as he gains fame both for and in spite of his mania, and as he eventually plummets rapidly from grace the parallels to Gibson’s off-screen exploits become increasingly tangible. Gibson is nothing short of remarkable in the role, but the damned irony of it all may keep him from getting too much credit for his performance. A few years ago The Beaver would have made him an Oscar contender. Now… maybe not so much.
For a movie about a guy and his hand puppet, Jodie Foster’s Beaver is deeper than you’d imagine. And yes, Mel Gibson’s in there, but Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence and even Foster herself have room to work their magic as well. If you just can’t stand Mel Gibson, The Beaver may not change your mind. But if you can shut out Gibson’s madness and give Walter Black’s insanity a chance to affect you, you’ll find a sincere, amusing and ultimately very hopeful attempt to make sense of the troubles that dwell within us all.
Crave Online’s Rating: 8/10